Two weeks ago in Rome, Maria Sharapova dropped just three games to Sloane Stephens. But she wasn’t taking any chances when she faced her again today. The defending French champion came out with a game plan—keep the hard-hitting Stephens out of the middle of the court—and she executed it well in the first set. Later, when she stopped executing it well and started missing, Sharapova just bore down harder, until she had finally broken the young American’s will.
Sharapova won by the ultimately routine score of 6-4, 6-3, but this still an improvement for Stephens. She stayed with Maria through the first six games, and bounced back from an early break in the second to make the set competitive. Stephens served well, and saved eight of 12 break points. She also showed that, given a look at a ball, she can hit with Sharapova—she had 15 winners to her opponent's 17. The trouble was, Sharapova didn’t give her many looks. If Sloane wasn’t covering the corners, she was hitting off her back foot. She leaves Paris having regained her equilibrium, and with a respectable result. Yet her main problem going forward may be less in her head than it is in her feet. On a few crucial points today, Stephens was late to get into position, and, with a chance to pressure Sharapova when she was serving for the first set, she ran right through an easy backhand on the first point, and fired it into the net.
On the other side of the net, a shouty Sharapova showed more of her frustration than normal. But even when her game went off, she refused to let herself slide for long. With Stephens serving at 2-2, Maria gathered herself to deliver the knockout blow. Sloane, who had just broken Sharapova, saved two break points with big serves; her confidence appeared to be gaining as Maria's was waning. But Sharapova did what she so often does: She outlasted her opponent mentally. She finally broke serve, and finally broke Sloane. By the middle of the next game, Stephens was hanging her head.
Sharapova has yet to drop a set in Paris, and has now won 11 straight matches there. She takes on the winner of Jamie Hampton and Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals.