More frustration for Sloane Stephens
PARIS -- Before their fourth-round match, Simona Halep talked about Sloane Stephens as being very young, almost as if she was going to follow up with comments about these darn, spoiled kids today. They have zero attention spans. They're always busy texting. No respect for their elders. And the way they wear their pants?
Which seems odd given that Halep is 22, Stephens is 21 and the two played together in juniors.
Halep, however, showed Monday that even a gap of one year -- 18 months, actually -- can make a substantial difference in experience and focus. The highest-ranked woman left in the tournament, Halep beat Stephens 6-4, 6-3 at Philippe Chatrier to knock the last American out of the French Open.
"It was a tough match, but she has played pretty consistent over the last nine months," Stephens said. "It's always tough against someone who is really consistent and has a lot of confidence and just plays a solid game. It definitely was tough, and there are a lot of things to take away from the match."
Well, Stephens certainly could learn something from Halep, her elder who has caught and passed her in the rankings the past two years. Halep also has won eight tournaments since the start of 2013, with a chance to add another one here, and Stephens hasn't won any in her career.
Although just a year and a half older than Stephens, Halep certainly has some life experience few 20-somethings can match. To lower discomfort while moving on the court, the Romanian underwent breast reduction surgery several years ago. That garnered a lot of headlines, but her considerable rise as a player the past two years is thanks to simpler, less tabloid-feeding aspects, such as plain old hard work and an improved mental outlook.
"I have more confidence in me now, and I try to do my best at Grand Slam also," she said. "I'm in quarterfinals the second time this year. I'm happy, and I feel prepared to go more far."
And it isn't just on the court. Halep also has worked hard on her English skills, to the point that she is reading books in the language -- she recently started the Harry Potter series. (Evidently, she's not that old.)
"All parts of her game have improved," analyst Darren Cahill said. "Her forehand improved out of sight. Her serves now turn into a weapon. She is serving six to 10 aces per match. That's a lot of free points. Her movement has always been very good.
"But more than anything, I think there are a lot of Romanian players who have come through together and she has more belief in herself now. She is training incredibly hard off the court. Her fitness and endurance are one of the best on the tour. And now she has the belief she can stay out there forever, so it takes a great performance to beat her."
For a while, it appeared Stephens might have that performance in her. After dropping the first two games, she came back to take a 3-2 lead in the first set. But she just could not take advantage of her opportunities. With a chance to even the second set in the fourth game, she squandered a couple of winnable shots and instead wound up falling into a 1-3 hole. Halep kept Stephens chasing shots across the court, and Stephens couldn't recover.
"I think I managed the match very well," Halep said. "I opened the angles. I wanted to make her run a lot on court. I think I played aggressive. I dominated the match, I think. I didn't serve very well, but I tried to return better, and I did."
Said Stephens: "I just didn't execute my game as well as I thought I could have, so that was disappointing. But that's tennis."
This was the sixth consecutive Grand Slam in which Stephens reached the fourth round -- the longest such active streak among women -- and the ninth in which she reached the third round. She also has been the last American left -- woman or man -- in four of the past six Slams. Stephens said that was a cool fact but not much of a consolation: "It is what it is."
What it is is not enough for Stephens. She still has reached the semifinals only once in a major tournament and has never reached the final in any tournament. She has received criticism for not maintaining her concentration and not treating every tournament as important. She needs to care more on all the stages.
The media attention on this is clearly getting to Stephens. When asked what challenging but doable step she looked to take next, otherwise low-key Stephens snapped, "Do you want me to say like I need to win a tournament? Is that what you're saying?"
No, the writer said, just wondering what Stephens thought and whether a Grand Slam was winnable in the not-too-distant future.
"I think personal goals, that's something I'll just keep to myself," Stephens said. "In the end you'll see, I guess, whatever happens."
Yes, we will. And there still is time. As Halep pointed out, Stephens is still young.
Petkovic avoids another upset
In a tournament of upsets, Kiki Bertens nearly had one of the biggest in her fourth-round match against Andrea Petkovic before Petkovic prevailed 1-6, 6-2, 7-5.
Bertens, 22, is ranked 148th and has earned $616,654 since turning pro five years ago, which is about one-quarter of that won by Stephens, who is a year younger. Petkovic, who is ranked 27th, said she knew so little about her Dutch opponent that "I stalked her on YouTube all day" to prepare. Bertens generated so little buzz that only one English-speaking reporter attended her postmatch news conference.
"I think she finished the match pretty good," Bertens said. "I think she played aggressive and just went for her shots. I think she did it pretty good, better than me. I think it was a great match in the end."
It was at least very close at the end. Bertens breezed past Petkovic in the first set before stumbling badly in the second -- she tossed the racket to the court in frustration after hitting one winnable shot into the net -- but took Petkovic near the limit in the third set.
"I was really relieved that I picked myself up after I was up 4-2 in the third and started playing a little passively," Petkovic said. "I wasn't going for my shots anymore. I was sort of hoping that she was going to miss. She's too good for that.
"After going down 5-4 in the third, I just sort of told myself, 'OK, listen, you have to play aggressive. You have to go for your shots. Nobody's going to give you the quarterfinals just because you're nice.'"
Errani advances, as well
Petkovic will play No. 10 seed Sara Errani in the quarterfinals after the Italian beat No. 6 seed Jelena Jankovic in the fourth round. Errani took a quick 4-1 lead in the first set before Jankovic came back to make it close before losing 7-6 (5). Errani won the second set much easier, 6-2.
"As the match got longer and longer, I got more and more tired," said Jankovic, who had a physical therapist treat her leg during the match. "She took advantage of that. Especially all those drop shots, I did not do well. When I was close to the net, she always got me."