Sloane Stephens overcame up-and-down form to move into the fourth round at Wimbledon. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)
WIMBLEDON, England -- On a day when 31-year-old Serena Williams notched her 600th win by beating 42-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm under the Center Court roof, a group of far younger players are trying to prove that the next generation of WTA talent has finally arrived. Sloane Stephens, Laura Robson, and Monica Puig, all part of the 20-and-under set, are into the second week of Wimbledon. Add 18-year old Madison Keys' game performance against last year's Wimbledon finalist No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, which she lost 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, and the future of the women's game continues to show promise.
The first week of Wimbledon wasn't pretty, but then again it rarely has been.
Stephens overcame some patchy form to advance to the fourth round -- She played her best match in her opener against Jamie Hampton, which she won comfortably 6-3, 6-3, but then battled her way through two tough three set matches to get to the second week. Against Andrea Petkovic in the second round, Stephens won 7-6 (2), 2-6, 8-6. In the third round, she got a 7-6 (3), 0-6, 6-4 win over 196th-ranked qualifier Petra Cetkovska in a match that was carried over from Friday evening after being suspended for poor light.
"I think it was a little tough, because at the end of the first set I couldn't see anything," Stephens told reporters after the match. She credits Cetkovska's play for that 6-0 second set, but said she alerted the umpire early on that her vision was obscured. "At 3‑0 in the second, I asked the lady, I really can't see. She is like, Oh, we're going to play for like 45 more minutes. I was like, 'Oh, that's not good.' After the set, I was like, 'Okay, you won the set but I can't see.' We're going to have to stop."
Conditions were markedly different when the match resumed on a warm and sunny Saturday, but Stephens still came out flat -- the story of the third set was the Czech's implosion rather than Stephens' better form. Cetkovska double-faulted three times in one game and after earning a break lead in the decider, she played a horrible game to give it right back. But in a week where the seeds fell left and right, Stephens is just happy to get through to her third straight fourth round at a Slam.
"Today was a new day," she said. "I knew I could come out and play, go for it, play a full third set. I was okay with it, but obviously a little frustrated because I had such a letdown."
Though her form hasn't been convincing through the first week, Stephens' draw gives her a great opportunity to make the semifinals or better. She'll play 19-year-old Monica Puig on Monday for a spot in the quarterfinals and if she wins that she'll play either No. 15 Marion Bartoli, who has been struggling, or 104th-ranked Karin Knapp . The highest seed she could face in the semifinals is No. 8 Petra Kvitova. Stephens says her results through the first week are a credit to her opposition.
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"I think everyone kind of just wants to put it on like we had like Wimblegeddon or something," Stephens said. "People are dropping like flies. You just have to go out and play hard. Every match gets harder. Every round guess harder and harder. There's a reason the person you're playing is in the third or fourth round."
Much like Stephens, Puig's match was suspended due to darkness when she was down a break at 1-2 in the third set against Eva Birnerova. On the restart, she was able to come back and win 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 to advance to the fourth round of a Slam for the first time. The two will face off on Monday in a match that pits two former classmates from Nick Saviano's tennis academy in Florida. "I mean, we're not like besties," Stephens said when asked about Puig. "I don't really know her that well. I mean, I know her mom and her coach and everything, but we're not, 'Hi, Monica, bye, Monica.'
That training group at Saviano's also included Laura Robson, who became the first British woman to make the fourth round of Wimbledon since Sam Smith in 1998. Was something in the water at Saviano's to produce such a quality crop of players who are all pushing into the upper echelons of the game at the same time?
"I think Nick, he's a very good technician," Stephens said. "I think pretty much anyone he's coached has like perfect technique. So, I mean, myself, Monica obviously has good technique, Laura Robson, Genie Bouchard. We all have pretty good technique."
Robson came through with the help of a boisterous home crowd, who helped her come back to beat Marina Erakovic 1-6, 7-5, 6-3. Erakovic dominated for most of the afternoon behind some big serving, but as she served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, she blinked. The atmosphere on No. 2 Court was like a Fed Cup tie, with the partisan crowd roaring with every point Robson won, either on a winner or an Erakovic error. Robson broke to get level at 5-5 and pocketed the set when Erakovic double-faulted on set point. With Erakovic reeling she raced to a 4-0 lead in the third and sealed the win with a forehand winner down the line.
"I think anyone would be tightening up serving for the match in that situation," Robson said of Erakovic, who looked rattled as the crowd got louder and louder with her every mistake. "I knew that she hadn't made the fourth round of a slam. So, yeah, I kind of just tried to put the pressure on her serve, and she made a couple of double‑faults, which helped me. I knew that that was my chance to get in her head a little bit, and that's what I did."
"I thought [the crowd] were so great, especially towards the end of the second and the whole of the third set. I don't think they had much to support in the first set, but, yeah, you know, they were amazing. I thought they helped a lot." With the win Robson will crack the Top 30 for the first time.
Much like Stephens, Robson will face another unseeded opponent on Monday in Kaia Kanepi. The talented Estonian is coming back from injury but made the quarterfinals of Wimbledon as a qualifier in 2010. Kanepi says she keeps seeing Robson's face all over the British newspapers and she's ready for the crowd to back their own. In fact, she welcomes it. "I think I'm going to enjoy that," Kanepi said. "I have had this feeling before, like we play Fed Cup in Belgium. They were all against me. Sometimes I get more power and fighting spirit if people are against me."