Interview in Paris: Jon Wertheim speaks with Sloane Stephens after her second-round upset win

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Two rounds into Roland Garros and it’s already been a lively tournament for Sloane Stephens. In her first-round match on Tuesday, she battled hard to get past cancer survivor Carla Suarez Navarro, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4. The story that day tilted around two contrasting factors: the expected emotion surrounding Suarez Navarro’s return to competition, and the surprising closeness of the match.

“She brought it to me today, and I thought she played a great match,” said Stephens.

Thursday for Stephens was all about business. The 28-year-old American beat ninth-seeded Karolina Pliskova, 7-5, 6-1. It was the 59th-ranked Stephens’ first win over a Top 10 opponent since the 2018 WTA Finals—also against Pliskova, a player Stephens has now beaten four out of five times.

It was clear from the start just how comfortable this matchup is for Stephens. Pliskova served the opening game and was immediately broken at 15. Hard as the Czech hits the ball, Stephens was extremely adept at tracking down Pliskova’s missile drives, absorbing the pace and then turning the tables with plenty of her own power and eclectic direction. It was a mixture similar to the one Stephens had displayed when she’d reached the final here three years ago.

GettyImages-1321478248

GettyImages-1321478248

The effect on Pliskova was vivid and swiftly demoralizing. One of tennis’ most delightful assets is that no player gets everything in the skills department. In Pliskova’s case, the notable absent asset is great movement. Lacking a significant ability to sustain defense, Pliskova must instead often turn to offense and rely on her flat strokes to carry the day. When an opponent like Stephens is retrieving one, two, three balls per rally, this is not an easy way to impose oneself. Naturally, unforced errors ensue—in Pliskova’s case, a whopping 24 in the first set (to just 13 for Stephens).

But even then, as well as Stephens was playing, she faltered at her first major opportunity. Serving for the set at 5-4, Stephens held a set point. Pliskova erased it with a laser-like down-the-line backhand winner. Soon the set was level.

Would the seed assert herself? Not this time. A superb lob from Stephens at 30-40 earned the break, and she served again for the set at 6-5. It took a while, but on her fifth set point, Stephens closed it out.

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It was clear from the start just how comfortable this matchup is for Stephens.

The second set was a formality, each player marching forward in seemingly inevitable fashion. While Stephens battened down the hatches with a measly four unforced errors, Pliskova committed 14.

It is amazing to see a former No. 1 like Pliskova prove so limited. As seen last month, when she was beaten 6-0, 6-0 by Iga Swiatek in the finals of Rome, Pliskova today showed little ability to adapt—no moonballs, no variations in spin or return position, few sudden forays to the net, scarcely a drop shot. Stress-free indeed for Stephens to have gotten through a tough first set, and then encounter an opponent offering negligible tactical alterations in set two.

Stephens’ challenge will be far different in her next match, a first-time meeting versus 18th-seeded Karolina Muchova. Just about the only attributes Muchova shares with Pliskova are a first name and a home nation. Chiseled, proficient and obvious, Pliskova summons the Industrial Age. Muchova’s all-court game is a colorful mural of shapes, sounds and flavors.

Between Stephens’ rebirth and Muchova’s creativity, consider their upcoming joust a tennis version of the Renaissance.