Tennis

Stephens coming into her own

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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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MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA

Sloane Stephens’ steady rise to the top of the women’s game took another significant step forward here at Melbourne Park on Monday as the 19-year-old American reached the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam for the first time.

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Stephens recovered from a second-set lapse to beat 21-year-old Bojana Jovanovski 6-1, 3-6, 7-5 on Hisense Arena.

Ever since she started making a mark in the juniors, Sloane’s career path has been sign-posted and she has not made any wrong turns. After being the youngest player and only teenager to finish in the top 50 for 2012, she has quickly moved on from her year-end ranking of No. 38 to be the No. 25 seed here. Now she’ll go higher -- the top 10 beckons.

Once again Stephens revealed her steely determination. Faced with a strong, big hitting opponent, Stephens faced the prospect of elimination when she went 3-1 down in the final set.

Stephens explained how she turned it around. “First set, I was playing good, not missing much. Then she brought it full force second and third set. She was going down the line on every shot. That’s hard – to run back and forth and go down the line. She’s hitting it with everything she has, every muscle in her body, and hitting it unbelievable. So I just had to find a way. I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God’ this is for the quarters of a Grand Slam and I’m completely, like, not here right now. I was, like, I need to refocus. I was playing my own self, I guess.”

And refocus she did. Hitting deeper, she forced errors out of Jovanovski in the fifth game of the final set and broke back to love. The sudden momentum switch seemed to unnerve the Serb, who had to beat off two more break points in the seventh game.

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At 4-5, Stephens decided to change rackets and go for a little more on her serve. “I won that service game with an ace – I know you saw that – and then just went from there.”

The emphasis on her serving an ace was accompanied by one of Sloane’s flashing smiles which will be lighting up the tour frequently from now on. She doesn’t serve too many aces so she just wanted to poke fun at herself by making a big deal of it.

The biggest deal came when she broke to love to leave herself serving for the match at 6-5 and, despite going 15-30 down, she did not falter.

Her victory is bad news for Sam Querrey, with whom Stephens shares David Nainkin as a coach. The pair had a bet as to who would do better this year. “He’s never been in the quarters of a Slam so … I got him!” she said triumphantly. “It’s not a real bet. It’s just for pride. Obviously the egos are big. This is tennis – so someone has to win.”

In the men’s draw, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a finalist here in 2008, beat his countryman Richard Gasquet 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 and Jeremy Chardy also became a first-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist by defeating Andreas Seppi, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 6-2.

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Like Serena Williams, Chardy trains at the Mourotoglou Academy in Paris and spent time with her when they were both on a training trip to Mauritius. “She’s a very nice person,” he said. “I speak a lot outside the court with her. I think she’s a big champion. We practiced together and now I know why she won many easy matches!”

Few easier than Serena’s 6-2, 6-0 demolition of 14th-seeded Maria Kirilenko. Serena ended up with an exceptionally high 87 percent of first serves. She was surprised. “I definitely never hit that of a percentage because I take a lot of chances with my serve. It was good. But I really want to be able to keep it up.”

Serena is a bit like her sister Venus in that she never wants to delve too deeply into the game’s technicalities. Asked about how the ball speed changes in the night air, she replied. “I never find whether a ball is heavy of light or yellow or pink. It’s pretty much the same. I could play with a rock.”

For the sake of her opponents, including young Stephens -- who she meets in the next round, it is probably a good thing she doesn’t.

Chardy will play Andy Murray in the quarterfinals after the Scot outplayed Gilles Simon, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3. It was something of a miracle that Simon was able to get on court after his marathon against Gael Monfils when he had been suffering from a knee injury but, in reality, it was no more than a token gesture. The result was foregone conclusion.

That would be too harsh a description of Roger Federer’s victory over the big serving Canadian Milos Raonic, but the great Swiss was never remotely troubled by his opponent’s power and, apart from winning 6-4, 7-6, 6-2, he found time to give the ball boys catching practice, testing their skills by hitting the ball the length of the court to them. They caught almost as well as he played.

“It was a sort of thank you to them,” he said. “A memory to me that I was a ball boy, too, for a few years when I was younger. I loved it, you know. The crowd seemed to get into it and we clean up the court quicker that way, get on with playing tennis.”

After you have reached 35 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals, it is probably natural to look around for something different but Federer played down the achievement, which many observers consider an almost superhuman feat.

“Times have changed you know,” he said. “Conditions have slowed down. That gives you an opportunity to maybe be more consistent. And then, of course, you have to stay injury free. But does it drive me? I’m not sure. It’s a nice record to have. Obviously it’s ongoing so you try to keep working at it.”

And he will, with that casual elegance as only Roger Federer can.
 

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