American dreams derailed in Paris
PARIS -- One of the few downsides to traveling in France is the risk of the more than occasional strike by transportation workers. For instance, there were warnings of a nationwide rail strike Monday and apparently it completely shut down the American women express that had been steaming through Paris this past week.
The United States sent four women into the fourth round of the French Open, the most at a Grand Slam in nearly a decade. Unfortunately, the three who played Monday -- Sloane Stephens, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jamie Hampton -- all lost in straight sets.
After winning her third-round match Saturday, Stephens said that life was going so well she wasn't even living in the real world. "There are no other 20-year-olds like me," she said that day. "There might be a few, like Miley Cyrus or something, but other than that I'm pretty much riding alone on this train."
Well, perhaps. But there are other trains on the track and Monday, Stephens was met by the Orient Express of tennis, the Maria Sharapova Special. Sharapova, who is so established that her shoe sponsor stitches her name on her sneakers (just in case you didn't recognize her), beat Stephens 6-4, 6-3.
Stephens gave her a much better match, though, than a couple of weeks ago in Rome when Sharapova beat her 6-2, 6-1. This time, Stephens fought hard and hung tough before finally losing.
"There is always room for improvement," Stevens said when asked what was separating her from the top level. "I mean, she's obviously a really great competitor if she's No. 2 in the world, so obviously it's tough. But, you've just got to keep improving. I wouldn't say there is a drastic difference of the game. You just got to keep getting better. Some things I can improve on, so I'll do that."
Stephens reached the fourth round of last year's French Open as well, plus the semifinals of this year's Australian Open, so she wasn't satisfied with just getting this far again. "Now I'm seeded, that's how I should be doing," she said.
To accomplish that at 20 isn't shabby, though, as Sharapova pointed out. After all, players are getting older. "It's also a bit of a different generation," said Sharapova, who won Wimbledon in 2004 at age 17. "I mean, she's 20 now? That's the new 17."
Sharapova said there are some players you play against and "you're not quite sure if they will be able to develop something to a different level. But I think there's a lot of room for a few things to improve, and I think she will.
"I think she has a big game. She has big strokes, a pretty good serve. Maybe not as consistent as she would like at this point, but, she has a lot of time to develop it. This is a really important time in her career. If she's in the right hands at the right time, I'm sure she's going to have a great career."
Meanwhile, the older Engine That Could finally was stopped as well.
Mattek-Sands, 28, has been playing on the circuit for 14 years but this was just her second trip to the fourth round of a Grand Slam. Due to multiple injuries and slow recoveries, she plummeted so far in the rankings (205th) and was able to play so few matches that she briefly considered retirement last year.
Instead, she got healthy and has improved her game considerably. She beat 2001 French Open champion Li Na in the upset of the tournament last week, and another upset seemed possible when she stormed to a 3-0 lead in the first set against Maria Kirilenko.
She started struggling with her shots after that though, and made a number of unforced errors. When Kirilenko closed the gap to 5-4, Matteck-Sands pointed to her abdomen and asked for a trainer between games. A trainer came out, followed by a doctor with the sort of metal case that looks as if it contains uranium. He gave her some medicine and Mattek-Sands resumed the match -- though not her game. She lost the set 5-7 and the second set 4-6.
So, what was the ailment? Did it affect your play? Did it contribute to your loss?
"Oh, no, I just -- it's that time of the month," Mattek-Sands said. "I just needed a pill."
Oh. Well. Ummm. Yeah. Sorry to bring it up.
Still, it was a great French Open for Mattek-Sands. And it still is, in fact. After losing to Kirilenko, she and Sania Mirza rallied to win their doubles match.
"I'm really pumped, actually," Mattek-Sands said. "It was a nice breakthrough. I had one of the best ones of my career. Even today, I did a lot of things. Just wasn't enough. But I'm going to definitely build on it. I'm feeling good. Feeling confident with my game still even after the loss. That didn't go anywhere. I'm excited for the next tournament, and I think I want to keep upping this momentum."
And now for our final locomotive analogy of the day, we have the great Hampton train derailment.
Hampton, 23, played wonderfully the first week, diving and scraping and getting dirty while winning her three matches, including an upset of 2011 Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova.
And then there was Monday.
Hampton's match was the last of the day on Court Suzanne Lenglen, and unfortunately for her, it followed a stirring 4-hour, 16-minute, five-set match between Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet. The crowd was on its feet roaring throughout that duel but when it ended, most of the fans went home, leaving behind a rather dead atmosphere.
The sun also was going to set soon, but it didn't matter much because Jelena Jankovic routed Hampton 6-0, 6-2 in barely an hour.
"That's all part of it," Hampton said of the long wait and the subsequent dead zone. "This week was a lot of firsts for me and a lot of new experiences, so that was definitely one of them. I've never played this late, I don't think even at a Grand Slam. So I'll to have learn, and hopefully do better next time."
That's the way to look at it. Because it was a great accomplishment for the Americans to have so many players go this far. And a sign that there are better days ahead.
And hey, there is still the Serena Williams Express.