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Stephens hopeful ahead of Sharapova clash

June 2, 2013 04:16 PM
Sloane Stephens faces Maria Sharapova for a spot in the French Open quarterfinals.
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com

PARIS – Someday soon, Sloane Stephens hopes to be going deep at tournaments on a week-to-week basis, but the 20-year-old is not there yet. Her game is still developing and she is still getting used to tour life. 
Nonetheless, she considers herself a big-match player and is someone who doesn’t mind high-level matches on Grand Slam show courts. She showed just how much talent she had at the 2013 Australian Open, when she shocked Serena Williams in the quarterfinals and nearly upended eventual champion Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals. 
"I love Grand Slams," said Stephens. "Everyone asks me, 'Do you think because it's a Grand Slam you want to do better?’ Not really. I've just always had really good results at Grand Slams. I think maybe it's more money or something, I don't know, more [ranking] points. But honestly, I have no idea."
On Saturday at Roland Garros, she survived a tough tussle against the red-hot Marina Erakovic of New Zealand, coming through, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3. In doing so, she put together a three-match winning streak for the first time since Melbourne. She is not playing at her best quite yet, but she is very close and knows that she must bring her A-plus game to the fourth round on Monday when she faces defending champion Maria Sharapova, who overwhelmed her when they faced off in Rome two weeks ago. 
"Yeah, definitely just have to stay focused and play hard again," Stephens said. "Obviously playing the No. 2 player in the world, that's always going to be tough. It's fourth round of a Grand Slam, so you just got to go out and play tough. I'm excited to get out there again."
Because Stephens had such a fantastic Australian Open and cracked the Top 20, there were some expectations that she would continue to go deep the rest of the season, but she admittedly had a difficult time adjusting to the increased attention on her and sputtered though the rest of the hard-court season. As former No. 1 doubles player Lisa Raymond said, Stephens has to be allowed to progress because even if she has all the talent in the world, there is still much to learn, not just about the game itself, but about the travel, the other players, and the ins and outs of the WTA. 
Prior to the French Open, Stephens didn’t have much success on red clay either, a surface she claims is her favorite. She did win two matches in both Rome and Brussels and found a bit of her confidence creeping back, yet she did not seem her usually happy-go-lucky self after her first two wins at Roland Garros.
Her mood improved vastly after her win over Erakovic. She says she having fun in Paris and has brought that joie de vivre on court.
"I don't think it has anything to do with tennis," she said. "I think it's just I'm really enjoying myself off the court. I mean, more shopping, like every day I'm buying stuff. People don't understand, like at 20 years old, I can do whatever I want. So I think I just had to realize that again."
Stephens may have had her emotional ups and downs, but against Erakovic she showed a tremendous amount of resiliency. The American was up 4-2 in the second set tie-break before the New Zealander went into the zone and smoked some huge forehands past her to take the set.
But Stephens didn't get down on herself and got right back on her horse. 
"When she was down she played some really good tennis," Stephens said. "She was hitting forehands from way out in the corner. I was like, ‘That's just too good.’ So just tried to stay calm and stay with it. It's not like I was playing bad, so I was just trying to still play my game and just hang in there. I was like, ‘OK, I've just got to play hard.’ I've obviously had a lot of chances, and it's always tough when you have a lot of chances and you don't win. So I was just telling myself to stay focused and stay calm."
Stephens is not only going to have to stay calm against Sharapova, she is going to have to play one of the best matches of her career. Sharapova has lost all of two matches on clay the past two years – both to No. 1 Serena. Sharapova can be had on clay, but only against players who can serve big and with variety, defend well, attack second serves and never lose focus. 
Stephens may not be capable of that type of performance just yet, but she believes she isn’t as far from raising a major crown as some might think.
"I would really, really, really love to win this tournament," she said. "But that's a long shot. I think every Grand Slam I'm getting closer and closer and closer. You just got to keep plugging away, and hopefully eventually I'll have that big trophy. Just keep working for it."
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And for more Pro Tennis coverage, including coverage of Americans at the 2013 French Open, go to the USTA.com Pro Tennis page. 


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