In many ways, the American outlook midway through the French Open looks the same in 2013 as it usually does: The U.S. delegation, known for its ineptitude on the European clay courts, has been decimated.
All 10 of the American men who made the main draw in Paris met elimination by the end of the third round, none getting far enough to even earn the honor of being dismissed by the seven-time-champion King of Clay himself—Rafael Nadal—or any other player in the world's top 10. (And it didn't help that No. 19 seed John Isner knocked out a fellow American, Ryan Harrison, in the second round.) The American squadron on the women's side, similarly, has dwindled from 15 players in the main draw down to just one: the transcendent Serena Williams.
But there's a thin ray of hope in the story of the American women at the 2013 French Open. Last year, American women gave a better showing than usual at Roland Garros when 10 of them advanced to the second round and two made it to the Round of 16. This year, the successes have multiplied. For the first time since the 2004 U.S. Open, four American women played in the fourth round of a major tournament: Jamie Hampton, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Sloane Stephens, and Williams, who earned a tough three-set win over Svetlana Kuznetsova today in the quarterfinals.
Yes, those first three all crashed out in straight sets in the fourth round. But after a decade that's brought much hand-wringing over the decline of American tennis, and after years of chaos at the top of the women's game, any string of breakout American achievements in tennis is welcome. Though lesser-knowns Hampton, Mattek-Sands, and Stephens may not have made it far into the second week, each one seized the opportunity to prove to the tennis-watching public—or remind the tennis-watching public—that they've got what counts in the international pro tennis scene: the capacity for seriously high-quality tennis. That bodes well for American tennis because two of these women—Hampton, 23, and Stephens, 20—are young enough to be considered promising prospects for the future of the U.S. women's game.
The 28-year-old Minnesota native Mattek-Sands has long been a head-scratcher of a player, better known for her crazy outfits over the last decade—like a soccer-inspired look, a Lady Gaga-esque jacket ornamented with white tennis balls, and some adventures with blue and purple hair dye—than her on-court performance. But this week, she enjoyed the deepest Grand Slam tournament run of her 14-year tour career, pulling out a shocking three-set win over Li Na, the sixth-ranked player in the world and the French Open champion in 2011.
Mattek-Sands credited her newfound success to having recently revamped her diet after finding out she has a whopping 26 food allergies, to items like papaya, garlic, and dairy products. "It always seemed like my body was fighting something," she told Sports Illustrated. "I was always sick a lot." Indeed, in the last decade and a half, head-to-toe injuries and illnesses have so hampered her that she considered retiring last year after falling to No. 173 in the world rankings. But this week, wearing black knee-high athletic socks, she rallied to defeat Li 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 and then proved it wasn't a fluke in the next round by beating Argentina's Paula Ormaechea 4-6, 6-1, 6-3.
Like Mattek-Sands, 2013 Australian Open scene-stealer Sloane Stephens has also been in the sports headlines for an embarrassingly non-tennis-related reason: She found herself in an uncomfortable media debacle alongside Serena Williams thanks to a probably-too-honest May ESPN Magazine story. In it, she revealed that Williams, once said to be Stephens's mentor, hadn't spoken to her since Stephens had beaten her in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in January. "That should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter," Stephens told writer Marin Cogan. "Like, seriously! People should know. They think she's so friendly and she's so this and she's so that—no, that's not reality!"
Since then, much of the chatter around Stephens has been related to her beef with Serena—and with a less-than-stellar springtime record (she hadn't made it past the third round of a tournament since Australia), it's easy to see why. But even though Stephens didn't match her heroics in Melbourne with a trip to the semifinals in Paris, her three wins over Karin Knapp, fellow American Vania King, and Marina Erakovic reminded her critics that she hasn't forgotten how to string together a few solid victories on a big stage. Perhaps most importantly, she leaves France with enough ranking points defended that she'll likely retain her No. 17 slot and may be able to climb up from there.
One of the tournament's biggest upsets thus far, though, came at the hands of Hampton, the world No. 54 who dismantled 2011 Wimbledon champ and world No. 7 Petra Kvitova in straight sets. Before 2013, Hampton had never made it to the third round of a Grand Slam; earlier in the tournament, she joked with the Washington Post that organizers and press writers couldn't even get her name right, calling her "Julie Hamilton" by mistake. But this year, she earned some minor name recognition when she battled No. 1 seed Victoria Azarenka into a third set at the Australian Open before struggling with back pain and ultimately going down 4-6, 6-4, 2-6. When she lost in straight sets to Serbia's Jelena Jankovic this week, commentators on the Roland Garros official radio station hailed her remarkable rise from obscurity and marveled at how long she'd just been left alone to "do her own thing" within the ranks of U.S. tennis.
So even though Serena Williams is now the only American player left with a chance at bringing a trophy home from Paris, it's been a good, productive French Open for U.S. tennis. Mattek-Sands proved she's got game and a new, reliably healthy body—not just a weird fashion sense. Stephens proved she's an up-and-comer with staying power—not just a one-run wonder with a tabloid history. And Hampton proved she's simply worth paying more attention to—much more. In the midst of a famously rough patch for American tennis, and on a surface that's historically been challenging for players raised on the U.S. hard courts, even that's something to take pride in.
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