There are few players who possess the skill and athleticism that Sloane Stephens imbues her matches with at the height of her powers. She is arguably the best mover on tour, particularly on clay, with one of the heaviest forehands and a vast toolbox of shots.
But Stephens is also maddeningly streaky, so one of the great sights of the French Open so far has been her long-awaited resurgence. Stephens continued her rise by outplaying the 18th seed, Karolina Muchova, 6-3, 7-5 to reach the fourth round for the seventh time.
As she headed into the clay season, Stephens’ game was in peril. She had compiled an appalling 4-16 record dating back to October 2019 and far too often her feet were rooted to the spot, her body language vacant. However, she remained positive, she has worked herself into possibly the physical form of her life and she has been slowly trending upwards on her favourite surface.
Against Muchova, Stephens built a fortress from the baseline with her defence and she cut through the numerous long, physical rallies with the force of her forehand. The Czech is one of the in-form players this year and in the second set she disrupted Stephens’ game effectively with drop shots, heavily spun forehands and her own imposing athleticism. It was not enough. She was felled by the fundamental challenge of facing Stephens on clay: it is just so difficult to consistently hit the ball past her.
While Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion and 2018 French Open finalist, has emerged as a clear contender in the top half of the draw, the defending champion, Iga Swiatek, remains the favourite. The Pole burnished her credentials in a different manner than usual. After blitzing through the first sets of her opening two matches, here Swiatek was forced to recover from a break down against a spirited Anett Kontaveit, the Estonian 30th seed, winning 7-6 (4), 6-0 after an opening set of the highest quality first-strike tennis.
Last year’s defeated finalist, Sofia Kenin, also reached the fourth round by defeating the 28th seed, Jessica Pegula, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.