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Thursday, May 30, 2013
Newsflash: U.S. thriving on clay

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

PARIS -- Early Thursday evening, the power went out in the television compound at Roland Garros.

Tennis Channel abruptly went off the air for about 20 minutes, which is a shame, because there was a fierce American uprising underway on the red clay.

Sloane Stephens
After some post-Aussie blues, Sloane Stephens is playing well once again.
In case you missed it, there are six (count them, six) U.S. players already into the third round at the French Open. So much for all talk about Americans and their allergic reactions to the European dirt.

You would expect Serena Williams, the No. 1 player in the world, to be there, and, of course, she is. But -- be honest, now -- did you see Bethanie Mattek-Sands upsetting the No. 6 seed and former French Open champion Li Na in a second-round match? Or Sam Querrey, who had previously lost in five of six first-round matches, getting to his first-ever third round here? Or Jamie Hampton, who had never been to the third round of a Grand Slam until this year -- finding herself 2-for-2 in 2013?

Sloane Stephens and Varvara Lepchenko reached the fourth round a year ago at Roland Garros, but did anyone foresee an opportunity for them to match that achievement and vault into the second week?

And here's the kicker: There will absolutely, positively be at least a seventh member of the American contingent playing for a berth in the fourth round. After a series of rain delays, the second-round match between Americans John Isner and Ryan Harrison was pushed into Friday. And, as an added bonus, Jack Sock could conceivably make it an elite eight when his second-round match against Tommy Haas finally takes place.

Even that guaranteed total of seven is the best the Americans have produced in the past decade; the U.S. put 11 into the fourth round in 2003, when five women advanced to the round of 16 -- Serena and Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Chanda Rubin.

There were five rain delays Thursday, two of them approaching two hours in duration. Professional tennis is difficult enough, but rain delays can leave players unstrung.

"Yeah," Stephens said after her emphatic 6-1, 6-3 victory over Vania King, "I haven't done well with the waiting. But everything else I've been pretty good."

Stephens, only 20, played a clinically clean game, spanking 29 winners against 17 unforced errors. Despite the delays, her on-court time was a scant 57 minutes. After the first delay, she played with her phone. After the second, she went to sleep.

"You literally have nothing to do," Stephens said. "Should I eat? Do cartwheels? You have no idea what to do, so it's just kind of you're lost."

A week ago in Brussels, Stephens got her nails done during a rain delay, assisted a Belgian chocolatier and watched her mother get a makeover.

Jamie Hampton
Jamie Hampton, who had failed to reached the third round of a Grand Slam in her career, has now done so for the second consecutive Slam.
Next up for No. 17-ranked Stephens is Marina Erakovic, who is at No. 92. Don't think this won't be a contest, though. The New Zealander has beaten Stephens twice, here in qualifying two years ago and last season in Memphis, Tenn. Stephens won the first set, then lost the next two 6-0, 6-1.

"Going to be a battle," Stephens said. "But it'll be fun. It'll be good."

The only American singles losers Thursday were King and Melanie Oudin, who fell to Zheng Jie 6-3, 6-1.

Hampton, though, was a winner 7-5, 6-2 over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova. She forged 13 break points and converted five of them in another relatively swift (1 hour, 20 minutes) match.

Although she lost in qualifying in Madrid and Rome, Hampton advanced to the semifinals in Brussels a week ago, losing to Kaia Kanepi. She credited the coaches at the USTA training center in Boca Raton, Fla., with focusing more on the clay game, hitting more topspin balls and constructing points better.

"Overall, I'm happy to move forward," Hampton said, "but I'll have to step up for my next match.

"Obviously. It's not often you get to play a Grand Slam champion."

That would be Petra Kvitova, the breakthrough winner at Wimbledon two years ago. Perhaps Hampton will find encouragement in Mattek-Sands' victory over Li. Or maybe she'll remember her own effort in the third round of the Australian Open. She actually took a set off Victoria Azarenka, who went on to defend her title Down Under.

"Here, I don't think I'm playing that well," said Hampton, whose ranking shot up to No. 54 after Brussels. "But it shows that I'm improving."

So, too, are the Americans.

"I don't know [why]," she said, smiling. "You tell me. It must be all the bread and croissants we're eating."