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Sloane Stephens talks Dubai return, taking on Iga Swiatek, and race to qualify for Paris Olympics

DUBAI: Sloane Stephens is not planning to retire any time soon but said her return to Dubai for the first time in 10 years was inspired in part by an urge to “make the rounds” and ensure she did not miss out on the chance to compete again in the UAE before eventually hanging up her tennis racket.

A former US Open champion and French Open finalist, Stephens currently ranks 41st in the world and is searching for a return to the form that helped her hit a career high of No. 3 in 2018.

She had not competed in the Middle East since 2014 before making the trip to the Arabian Gulf this month, first contesting the Qatar Open in Doha before heading to the Dubai Tennis Championships, where she will take on world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in a highly anticipated second-round match on Tuesday.

“I’m just trying something different this year,” Stephens said of her decision to compete in Doha and Dubai. “Obviously I’m getting a bit older so I just kind of want to make the rounds. I think sometimes you have to change it up to get different results. So I was like, yeah, I’m going to try it. I’ve been jet-lagged for eight days but it’s fine.

“I think I am still going to play for more years but I think if I play four more years of tennis and I never come back here, I’d be like, I probably should have done it. So I don’t want to have any regrets looking back.

“Obviously 10 years is a long time. A lot has changed. Even in Doha, I was like, wow, this is like a completely different place. So it’s nice to have that reset and look at things and see how things have updated.”

Stephens usually competes in Mexico during this stretch of the season but has traded her favorite taco spots for shopping expeditions in some of Dubai’s renowned malls.

“My legs were hurting for two days after I went there,” she joked.

One of her coaches, Omar El-Kheshen, is Egyptian and Stephens chuckled when asked if he has helped provide any extra insight or advice while she has been competing in Arab countries.

“I thought it was going to, but then he started speaking English to everyone and I was like, ‘That is not why you’re here, you’re supposed to be helping us and getting the scoop,’” she said.

Stephens lost in two sets to Sorana Cirstea in the opening round of the Qatar Open. She defeated French qualifier Clara Burel in three sets on Sunday in the opening round in Dubai and faces Swiatek carrying a 0-2 head-to-head record against the Pole.

Swiatek, meanwhile, is coming off a rare “threepeat” in Doha, where she defeated Elena Rybakina in a thrilling final on Saturday to lift the trophy for the third year in a row.

“She just won the tournament the other day; obviously she’s playing really well, as always,” said Stephens. “She’s our most dominant, probably, No. 1 in the last few years. I think it will be a good match.

“I’m over my jet lag now, so hopefully I can come out and play some good tennis and just do my best. Obviously getting a win (over Burel) was super helpful … It was super windy, so I hope it’s not windy when I play here (again). I’m just going to go out and do my best and see what happens.”

As a former Grand Slam champion, Stephens knows what it takes to stand among the best players in the world but said relying on past experience does not always help.

“Sometimes it works like that and sometimes it doesn’t,” she said. “But I think that tennis is so up and down, it’s so emotional, and it’s so strategic, and the points and the week-to-week — anything could happen.

“One week you can be 50 (in the rankings), next week you can be 20, and anything changes with the snap of a finger. So I think you need to be ready for that in any circumstance. One match could lead to the finals. You could fight off match points in the first round and then be in the finals of a Grand Slam.

“It’s very unpredictable, so you have to fight your way through and try to figure it out and let the good times roll when they can.”

With the 2024 Paris Olympics rapidly approaching, the race to be one of the four top-ranked US players who will qualify for the Games is on, with the cutoff date for the final rankings set for early June.

Stephens, one of seven American women in the top 50, currently ranks fifth among her compatriots, behind Coco Gauff, Jessica Pegula, Madison Keys and Emma Navarro.

“Obviously I’d love to make it (to the Olympics) but our bench is really tough; it always has been and someone always gets left out,” she said.

“We have four more months until the rankings are picked and whoever can have the best next few months is obviously going to make it. Anything can happen; you could be five (in the rankings) and someone could get injured. There’s just so many dynamics with it.

“It won’t be the end of the world if I don’t make it. But obviously Paris, playing at Roland Garros, is one of my favorite venues I’ve ever played at and done well at, so it would be nice. But I’m not going to die if I don’t make it.”

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