Tennis

Stephens offers hope for USA tennis

Image: Sloane Stephens (Susan Mullane, USA Today Sports)
American Sloane Stephens advanced with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Mathilde Johansson.
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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PARIS

It was straightforward for No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic, a touch more difficult than it should have been for Roger Federer and very difficult for Tomas Berdych, but men's play at Roland Garros on Friday produced none of the upsets that have highlighted the first week of the French Open.

2012 French Open

2012 French Open

In women's play, however, there was a victory that bode well for the future of American tennis. Sloane Stephens, a 19-year-old from California, shrugged aside what should have been the daunting task of playing a French opponent on the Philippe Chatrier Center Court and beat Mathilde Johansson 6-3, 6-2.

There was nothing flashy about Stephens' performance — just solid, sensible clay-court tennis that, injected with the natural power the teenager fuels into her strokes, proved too much for the tall Johansson. As her name suggests, Johansson was born in Sweden, but she moved with her family to France as a baby and, last year, finished as her country's third-ranked player.

For Stephens, it was all about staying calm on the big stage.

"I think I've done a lot better recently — just staying calm throughout the whole match," she said.

She might have explained that calm when she was asked about the necklace she wore during the match.

"My grandparents gave me this necklace," she said. "It says, 'In calmness and confidence.' Every time I'm getting really tight, or I'm like, 'Oh, my God, what am I doing?' I'm just like, 'OK, you can do that.' I think of that, and it helps me."

Stephens comes across as a bright girl with a sunny disposition who is trying to prepare for the impending stardom she will happily embrace. Sometimes her emotions get the better of her, and apparently she was not in a good place last month.

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"Yeah, if you only knew what was going on 3 1/2 weeks ago. I mean, the only way to go was up," she said. "So my mom and my aunt came over, and that helped me a lot because I don't know what was going on. I was being 19 and I think now I am being 29. So I think my mom and my aunt definitely helped me through the last couple of weeks."

Stephens said she had been eating too much candy and drinking too much soda.

"I stopped, and I think that's helped me a lot."

Inevitably, Stephens, an African-American, was asked if she had been inspired by the Williams sisters.

"Yeah, they definitely inspire," she said. "I mean, race has nothing to do with it, but they inspire everyone to play tennis. They're two of the best tennis players ever to play the game. I like them. I think they're funny."

On the amusement scale, this French Open has not been a barrel of laughs for Serena Wiliams, who followed her shocking first-round singles defeat with a loss in the first round of the mixed doubles. She and partner Bob Bryan were beaten late in the evening on Court 2 by Argentinians Gisela Dulko and Eduardo Schwank 7-5, 3-6, 10-8.

Stephens, meanwhile, will now play reigning US Open champion Samantha Stosur of Australia, who advanced with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over experienced Russian Nadia Petrova.

The upset of the day was provided by 2009 French and 2004 US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who demolished No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska 6-1, 6-2.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal

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"I am remembering how I used to play," said Kuznetsova, who certainly revived memories of how formidable a competitor she used to be.

But Ana Ivanovic, who won at Roland Garros in 2008, had less success trying to hark back to yesteryear, losing to Sara Errani 1-6, 7-5, 6-3.

Despite a brilliant first set, full of good serving and flashing forehand winners, Ivanovic let the tidy little Italian clay courter back into the match in the second, then sealed her own fate with innumerable errors in the third. Time and again, the powerful Serb would set herself up for the kill with terrific approach shots, only to dump the potential winner into the net or pound a smash wide. Errani, a thoroughly deserving winner, will now play Kuznetsova for a place in the quarterfinals.

Federer also advanced, but it wasn't easy. Facing Nicolas Mahut, who forever will be linked to John Isner because of their Wimbledon marathon, Federer let set points slip at the end of the second, then found himself losing the set when the Frenchman struck a superb backhand service return winner up the line.

A few more mistakes spilled off Federer's racket than he would have liked, but despite huge support from the crowd, Mahut, like Isner earlier, eventually lost 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.

"I knew he could play very well from the baseline," said Federer, referring to the fact that Mahut prefers faster surfaces. "And it was tricky at times. I thought he did well. I struggled a little bit, but overall I'm obviously happy I came through."

In the fourth round, Federer will play the tournament's surprise package, a 21-year-old from Belgium, David Goffin, who lost in the qualifying, but got into the main draw as a lucky loser. Goffin, a slightly built young man who could pass for 16, knocked off powerful Pole Lukasz Kubot in straight sets.

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Told he was Goffin's idol, Federer laughed.

"It's strange, I tell you that," Federer said. "It's everything you can imagine. I'm happy to hear it, though. So it's obviously a big match for him and for me, too. It's the fourth round of a Grand Slam. Yeah, it's going to be an unusual match for me, knowing that now."

Asked whom he would have liked to play among the players he admired, Federer replied, "I would have loved to have played Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. They were the ones for me growing up that I sort of idolized. And obviously Pete (Sampras) came along, and I had the chance to play against him, which was just amazing."

Young Goffin will know the feeling Sunday.

Djokovic wasted little time dismissing a French qualifier, Nicolas Devilder, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, while Jo Wilfried Tsonga extended his French hopes by beating Italy’s Fabio Fognini. But Brian Baker's conqueror, Gilles Simon, lost to Federer's Davis Cup colleague, Stan Warwinka, in five sets.

Berdych, the No. 7 seed, also needed five sets to beat back a strong challenge from South Africa's Kevin Anderson, but Juan Martin del Potro, apparently untroubled by a strapped left knee, required only three sets to get the better of Croatia's Marin Cilic.

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