Stephens can't write fairy-tale ending at French
PARIS -- This would have been another gigantic accomplishment, piled on top of a week's worth of triumphs, for American Sloane Stephens.
But even fairy tales sometimes have alternate endings, and Stephens' saga at the French Open does not leave her covered in pixie dust. Sixth-seeded Samantha Stosur defeated Stephens 7-5, 6-4 in the fourth round at Roland Garros and delivered a lesson to her less-experienced opponent about seizing opportunity.
Stephens will likely walk away from Paris thinking about the big points she didn't win -- the few that separated her from upsetting Stosur -- and making it to the quarterfinals. The part that will haunt her for a bit will be the period when, leading 5-3 in the first, she dropped four straight games to lose the set.
After that, Stosur's game rose in quality, and Stephens was put back on her heels.
"The tennis part probably came down to experience," Stephens, 19, said after the match. "I wouldn't say it was like, 'Oh my God, she was like overwhelmingly whatever.' But [there are] definitely things to learn on my part."
Stosur, 28, praised Stephens, saying she had shown a lot of confidence and forced Stosur to raise her game.
"I think she's got a very bright future ahead of her," said Stosur, the 2011 U.S. Open champion and a 2010 French Open finalist. "I think at that point of maybe, 5-3, 5-4, 5-all, that inexperience probably showed through a little bit. And then again, for me to be able to run away with a string of games, I think that's just, yeah, being young and maybe not handling it as well as you might down the track. She's got an excellent forehand and serves pretty big and moves very well. I think, as she matures and gets a little bit older, that's all going to really come together."
Stephens' loss to Stosur also has other implications, farther reaching than Roland Garros. She needed to win to keep herself in contention for the U.S. Olympic team. The top-four ranked singles players in the U.S. will be under consideration by the U.S. Tennis Association for the London Games.
Serena Williams, Christina McHale and Venus Williams are in. Stephens was battling Varvara Lepchenko for the final spot, with Stephens needing to last longer in the French Open to pass her. Lepchenko plays her fourth-round match Monday against Petra Kvitova.
But a bit of perspective is needed to assess Stephens' bad news. If somebody had told Stephens before the French Open that she would make the fourth round, and possibly be on the Olympic team, she would have been thrilled.
"The whole thing is worth it," Stephens said of her French Open experience. "[It was] so much fun to just be out there and just play, you know? Some people can't even play tennis, so for me, it's just like when you think about it, it's not bad at all."
The match, played as the late afternoon shadows danced and eventually consumed Court 1, had a very odd feel. Stephens and Stosur were scheduled to be the last on Court Suzanne Lenglen, but the earlier slate of matches ran long. They were moved to Court 1, a 3,800-seat, round-shaped arena nicknamed the "Bull Ring," but the crowds did not come.
There were fewer than 400 people in the stands, making for a quiet, and almost spooky, atmosphere. The sounds of the fluttering pigeons overhead, shutter click-click-clicks of courtside photographers, and the coughing and sneezing of the crowd sounded loud in the tomb-like silence of the match.
Neither Stosur nor Stephens make much noise when they play, which added to the silence.
The roar of the pro-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga crowd, trying to urge him on in his match against Stan Wawrinka at nearby Court Philippe Chatrier, many times overwhelmed Court 1, too.
"I think whenever a match gets moved late in the day like that, it's a bit dead," Stosur said. "You know, everyone was enjoying the center court [Tsonga-Wawrinka] match. We had to move, which is fine. But, yeah, when you got a big stadium like that and it's pretty empty, it's hard to kind of feed off any energy because there really isn't any out there."
Stephens was capable of handling Stosur's powerful groundstrokes. The difference was the first serve. Stosur got hers in 72 percent of the time and won 65 percent of points. Stephens' first serve worked 60 percent of the time, but only won 56 percent of the points.
As Stosur ratcheted up the pressure near the end of the first set and start of the second, Stephens showed frustration. She shook her racket after losing the first set. After another mistake in the second set, she spun around on her right heel and stuck her tongue out.
It's time for Stephens and her mom, Sybil Smith, to head home to the U.S. and reflect on what's happened over the past week in Paris. And yes, Stephens says she's flying home in first class, as a reward for her hard work. Smith isn't sure she wants to spring more money for the upgrade, so Mom may be sticking to coach.
They've been on the road since the start of April, playing tournaments around Europe.
Stephens says she is leaving Roland Garros the same way she came: with a smile on her face.
"[The French Open was] so much fun," Stephens said. "I have had such a good time. And even though every day I have been saying, 'Man, I can't wait to get home to eat my grandpa's curry crab,' I don't want to leave.
"So it's kind of bittersweet that I'm going home, but I had so much fun."