PARIS—You would hardly have known from looking at Sloane Stephens this morning that this was a big, perhaps the biggest, day in her tennis life. The 19-year-old was playing for a chance at a surprise spot on the U.S. Olympic team, and she was doing it on one of the sport’s premier stages, Court Philippe Chatrier, against a local favorite, Mathilde Johansson. But Stephens appeared to be in cruise control throughout her 6-3, 6-2 third-round win. She broke her opponent at will and even took her foot off the gas a few times. But whenever she needed a game against her 27-year-old opponent, she cranked up her forehand and backhand and sent Johansson scrambling again.
After her second-round win, I wrote that Stephens' style may appear a little lackadaisical, but it isn’t. She stands up straight and isn’t overly busy with her footwork, but that’s in part because she’s one of those players who makes it all look easy. Still, Stephens at this stage does tread the line between effortlessness and passivity. Today she alternated between taking control of rallies early with her forehand, and sitting back and waiting—with her ball-striking skills and heaviness of shot, it’s not hard to guess which of those approaches produced better results. On a few occasions, she was late getting around for her inside-out forehand because she was a little too smooth with her footwork.
Those are quibbles for the future, not for today. Today, Sloane Stephens is that great rarity in American tennis: a 19-year-old in the fourth round of the French Open, an American who loves clay and can pull off a pretty fair imitation of a slide on it. Most impressive was the way that she simply outclassed her opponent. Johansson is a veteran who has never been a world-beater; her career-high ranking is No. 59, not far above Stephens’ current No. 70. But Stephens’ easy power and speed made her look distinctly second-class. That’s a good sign for anyone wondering about how high she can climb. The only time Johansson was able to make any inroads was on Stephens’ very improvable second serve; she spun some of them in at 75 m.p.h.
Now Stephens will get a sterner test in the winner of Sam Stosur and Nadia Petrova. But she already passed one today by holding her nerve when so much was on the line. In fact, she made it look like it was all in a day’s work. When it was over, she celebrated calmly, flashed a sweet smile to her mother, packed up her racquet, and walked out, for the moment at least, a young Olympian.