Sloane Stephens last American standing
LONDON -- Try as she might, Sloane Stephens just can't shake the comparisons to Serena Williams.
It's just not quite the way anyone could have predicted.
On the same day that the five-time Wimbledon champion was eliminated in the fourth round, Stephens prevailed in three sets to become the lone American to survive into the quarterfinals. Stephens' victory over Monica Puig on Monday also marked the second time in the past three Grand Slam tournaments that Stephens has advanced further than Williams, the standard-bearer for U.S. tennis.
Now the question, fair or not, is whether Stephens can live up to the challenge and at the tender age of 20 break though into the rare air, that of a Wimbledon champion. Increasing the pressure, if that's what it is, is the fact that Stephens, the No. 17 seed, is thought to have a prime opportunity; of the players remaining in her half of the draw, only No. 15 Marion Bartoli, Stephens' quarterfinal opponent, and No. 8 Petra Kvitova are seeded higher.
Despite the disappointment at having failed to defend her title, even Williams jumped on the Stephens bandwagon.
"I think Sloane has a really good chance of winning," Williams said. "She has a great draw. I think she can take it. It would be really nice to see her win."
So now it's obviously up to Stephens, who defeated Williams in the Australian Open quarters only to lose five of her next seven matches before reaching the fourth round of the French Open for the second straight year, where she lost to defending champ Maria Sharapova.
"Everyone asks, like, 'Why do you only play well in the Slams, whatever?' I mean, I don't know. It just happens," she said.
If she sounds flip, it is because she is. It is also because she's 20. Reminded that she recently said she could do whatever she liked as a 20-year-old, Stephens was asked Monday what exactly she wanted to do.
"I don't know," she replied. "It's crazy when you can do what you want but you just don't know what to do. I started watching this new TV show. I think that's what I'll do this afternoon. I don't know."
Asked about the unusual composure she displayed upon pulling out her 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 victory over Puig, Stephens answered, "Yeah, I saw [Kirsten] Flipkens [the No. 20 seed from Belgium, who defeated 166th-ranked Flavia Pennetta in another fourth-round match] fall to the ground today. You would have thought she just won Wimbledon.
"I think everyone just has different reactions. I think I was just kind of the whole match really calm. I was happy to get the win, so I wasn't too, like, overjoyed. I think inside I was, like, very excited. But it didn't really show, so ..."
She moves on to play the 2007 Wimbledon runner-up in a tournament blown even wider open Monday with the loss of Williams. In the upper half, Williams' conqueror, Sabine Lisicki, will meet Kaia Kanepi, who dispatched Britain's 19-year-old heroine Laura Robson in straight sets; and No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, the highest remaining seed and 2012 Wimbledon runner-up, will face No. 6 seed Li Na, who also prevailed Monday.
In Stephens' half, No. 8 Petra Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon champion, will square off against Flipkens, while Stephens meets Bartoli. All four women's quarterfinals are scheduled for Tuesday.
Stephens, for what it's worth, would like to halt all this championship talk, regardless of Williams' endorsement.
"Thanks," Stephens said. "Still, like I said, I have a ways to go. We'll see. I'll let you know."
Nonetheless, she would like to go on the record, after saying the French was her favorite tournament, that Wimbledon is no slouch.
"Everyone loves this tournament," she said. "It's a dream to be here. I mean, I'm really excited just to be in the quarters here.
"It's my first time making the final eight. I'm really excited. I think somebody asked me the other day my first experience watching Wimbledon. It was when I watched Venus [Williams] play [Lindsay] Davenport. They had, like, that epic final [in 2005] ... I was not good at tennis then, obviously. I was a nonfactor. So it's crazy just thinking that I went from watching that to actually here in the quarters.
"It's definitely crazy, but it's good."
Also good was Stephens' ability to shake off the first set and play her best tennis of the tournament in the third set.
"I just started really going for my shots," she said. "Monica was playing really well. She was going for all her shots. It's tough when you're playing someone who is just going for everything. It's kind of hard to get into a rhythm.
"But I think I just hung in there, tried to do my best. Once I got my opportunity in the third set, I really went for it."
Now on something of a roll -- having reached the third round (Rome), quarterfinals (Brussels), fourth round (French) and quarterfinals (Wimbledon) -- Stephens admits she had to regain her self-confidence after her slide following the Australian.
And in a way only she could.
"It was a bad time," she said. "I think just knowing that I am a good tennis player [and] I'm top 20 in the world for a reason. I didn't, like, all of a sudden snap my fingers and I got good.
"I put in a lot of work, took a lot of sweat, like bad hair days, all that other stuff, to get to where I was. I realize that I just couldn't let that go to waste. I had to get back to work and just, you know, start working again."