Calm After the Storm

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PARIS—Contrast has always been a precious commodity in tennis, and we got a good dose of it on Court 1 today when Sloane Stephens met Marina Erakovic in a third-round match.

Here was Stephens in a fashionable visor, playing an opponent donning a boring baseball cap. A tight-fitting, hip-hugging, flourescent green, “look at me!” dress against Erakovic’s navy-and-white, plain-Jane, square shift. Stephens’ ankle-socks and bright blue tennis shoes (color coordinated with her dress and visor) in contrast to Erakovic’s white socks, girded by ankle braces stuffed into white shoes, all stained orange by previous excursions across the red clay.

Okay, most of those are superficial, protean differences. But they also point toward some more germane contrasts that undoubtedly influenced the outcome, an encouraging and perhaps season-altering win by Stephens, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3.

Erakovic seems a bundle of energy and nerves, forever bouncing on her feet and compulsively smacking the soles of her kicks to rid them of clay. Stephens is restrained and almost unnaturally calm. Combined with her just-so neatness, you might take her for a control freak—not the worst character profile for one in her profession. Stephens’ only tell, when it comes to emotions, is a cry of “yes” that she utters at critical moments of success. Even that comes out as a squeak, as if she’d just seen a mouse, not whacked a forehand that could drill a hole in a steel door.

“I think most of the time I’m (self-controlled) like that,” Stephens would say later. “If I’m not being weird or going crazy, most of the time I’m pretty calm. Today I just really tried to stay focused and calm, and I think that helped a lot.”

Erakovic has always been a recognized talent; she’s struggled with serious injury, but carries a dangerous weapon in her forehand and personifies the word scrappy—not exactly the player you want to meet when you’ve been through as rough a patch as Stephens has since her breakout journey to the semifinals of the Australian Open. The Kiwi is ranked just No. 92, compared to Stephens’ No. 17, but she won their only previous match, last year in Memphis (4-6, 6-0, 6-1).

This was an excellent, competitive match from the get-go. Stephens drew first blood when Erakovic suffered a brief lapse in the seventh game and dropped serve in a flurry of errors. But when Stephens served for the set and raced out to a 40-love lead, she hit a speed bump. Erakovic belted and slashed her way to break point, using her forehand to drive Stephens back off the baseline. Stephens bent but she didn’t break; at ad-out she smacked an ace, and then tagged a pair of service winners to finish the first set.

Stephens’ level dropped slightly in the fourth game of the second set, setting off a chain reaction that resulted in four consecutive breaks. But both women got back on an even keel, and they went at each other hammer and tong right into—and through—the tiebreaker. It was one of the best tiebreakers I’ve ever witnessed.

Seven of the 12 points ended with outright winners, and at least two more of those points were un-returnables. The key was Erakovic’s ability to rally with her much improved backhand long enough to give her a good look at a forehand. Although she lost the first point, she got back the mini-break at 2-4, then logged the critical mini-break of Stephens for 6-4 and won it, 7-5.

“I was up 3-0 and 4-2, but like I said, when she was down she played some really good tennis,” Stephens reasoned. “She was hitting forehands from back here way out in the corner. I was like, ‘That’s just too good.’ I just tried to stay calm and stay with it. I mean, it’s not like I was playing bad, so I was just trying to still play my game and just hang in there.”

Stephens resisted the urge to go out of her way to avoid Erakovic’s forehand, which may have been a wise if dangerous decision: “Obviously her forehand is very, very good. I wouldn’t say that I was trying to avoid it—or going to it—purposely. I just think that sometimes when someone has a strength and really uses it well, no matter what you do, that person is always going to try to go back to it.”

Acknowledging that reality and resolving to deal with it takes intelligence, courage, and just the kind of poise that Stephens seems to have—the kind that helps differentiate her from other players, and marks her as a having the character of an elite player. Her composure and patience would come in handy as the third set unfolded, especially after another tit-for-tat exchange of breaks brought the score to 3-all.

Erakovic was a little jumpy again, though, and she was the next—and last—one to blink. She anxiously threw in some unexpected errors to allow a break that gave Stephens a 5-3 lead. This time, Stephens took care of another 40-love lead and tagged a pair of service winners to clinch it.

It was on that same Court 1 last year that Stephens played her final French Open match, a fourth-round loss to the No. 6 seed and former finalist, Sam Stosur. A lot has happened to Stephens in the 12 months since then, most of it much better than what she’s been through in the past few months.

“Leaving here last year, I never would have thought I would make the semis of a Grand Slam and have done all these great things, being in this position I am now, in the Top 20 and all that stuff. But it’s exciting. It’s fun and I’m enjoying it. I think that’s all you can really take from it. Next year I may be in a completely different situation. So you just got to enjoy it now and just keep going with the flow, I guess.”

It’s always a good thing when a control freak is flexible enough to go with the flow, and who knows where the current might carry her at this, her favorite of all Grand Slam events?

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