Stephens' maturation continues as she exits French Open quietly

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Sloane Stephens heads to the grass courts next. She made the third round of Wimbledon last year.

Sloane Stephens heads to the grass courts next. She made the third round of Wimbledon last year.

PARIS -- In what might be considered an act of postmodern damage control, Sloane Stephens issued an apology to Serena Williams via Twitter last month. She ended her mea culpa with the hashtag "#lifelessons." All part of the process of a tennis player, maturing on a global stage.

On Monday, she was issued another life lesson, this one by Maria Sharapova. Playing the last match on Court Philippe Chatrier, Stephens faced the defending champion. This was an opportunity for Stephens to score her biggest win since her breakthrough victory over Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals. But it was not to be. As Richard Gasquet and Stan Wawrinka played a dramatic demi-classic on Suzanne Lenglen (6-7 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 8-6 in the Swiss' favor), Sharapova advanced with no drama, sweeping aside Stephens 6-4, 6-3 like a groundskeeper displacing the clay.

How do the top seeds roll? Yes, by pounding aces and drilling shots on the run. But much more than that, they win with clean and clinical and businesslike performances -- as Victoria Azarenka did to start the day (6-3, 6-0 over 2010 champ Francesca Schiavone), a heavy-hearted Novak Djokovic did next (4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 over Philipp Kohlschreiber) and an improved (the mojo's back) Rafael Nadal did after that (6-4, 6-1, 6-3 over Kei Nishikori).

Likewise, Sharapova turned in a poised effort and moved on. She jumped to an early lead in both sets and won 80 percent of the points once the score got to 30-30 in a match that wasn't as close as the score suggests. This is what divides the Truly Elite from the Merely Elite, the seniors from the sophomores.

Still, Stephens, 20, leaves here with her head high. In reaching the fourth round -- winning three straight matches for the first time since Australia -- Stephens bolstered her confidence heading into the second half of the year. She appears to be past the dismal results and ennui that plagued her game in March. April and May. More important, her ranking prospects are bolstered. Having defended her points at Roland Garros, she'll stand her ground -- with a real possibility of moving into the top 10 by year's end, given how little she played last fall.

"Moving in the right direction," Stephens said. "All I can really ask for."

Unquestionably, Stephens is a work in progress. She needs to serve more tactically. She sometimes lingers behind the baseline during rallies, admiring her handiwork, rather than sprinting back to position. Her flap with Serena was an unforced error. But at the 2012 French Open, she reached the fourth round, and one skeptical former champion declared, "Let's see where she is a year from now."

"There are some players you play against and you're not quite sure if they will be able to develop something to a different level," Sharapova said. "But I think there's a lot of room for a few things to improve, and I think she will. ... This is a really important time in her career. If she's in the right hands at the right time, I'm sure she's going to have a great career."

It's been a year and she's won matches, taken down Serena and staked out terrain in the top 20. She's on her growth chart. If she keeps this up, soon she'll be administering some life lessons, not absorbing all of them.

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Can we have a moratorium on talk about "a semifinal that's really a final" by anyone but the most rabid fans? I understand the urge when the semis are set, and one of them features, say, No. 1 and No. 3 and the other, say, No. 14 and a wild card, but it's disrespectful of the final opponent who played well enough to reach the final, regardless of ranking or history. Last I checked, they do actually play a final round and not call it off just because one player is heavily favored. Anyone who says Roger Federer couldn't possibly win in a final against the winner of Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic (especially considering how long their matches often last) but hasn't yet used his psychic abilities to win Powerball is a fool. There's a difference between probable and possible. --Nikki, St. Louis

? I'll buy that. But I think it cuts both ways. Djokovic or Nadal has won 10 of the last 12 majors, with one for Federer and another for a player who missed the French Open, Andy Murray. They both played in the final here last year. Djokovic is ranked No. 1 and Nadal has won this event seven of the last eight years. Bless Federer, but we all know this is not his strongest Grand Slam, and we know his record on clay against Nadal. Those asserting that their (likely) semifinal will determine the winner are not "fools."

That out of the way, I do think it's hardly a fait accompli. And I agree with Nikki that too many were quick to dismiss altogether the bottom half of the draw. The back injury that clearly hampered Federer earlier this year not in evidence. Meanwhile, Nadal looked like he had lost some mojo until he steamrolled Nishikori. Djokovic has cruised, but he (unlike Federer) has never won here. And his clay results -- due partially to his ankle injury -- do not bode well.

Bottom line: We'll see. Fueled by the bile lubricant that is social media, the partisans on both sides get so worked up. But why? Soon we'll have answers and won't need to lobby and speculate. Fortunately for all of us, the principals remain in the men's draw. Let's just see how it plays out.

"Reader Doug Messenger notes: When facing break points, serving in the ad court, Serena tends to ... " Great. All one has to do is get her to break point. Happens once or twice a week, I'm thinking.-- Steve Perry, Santa Rosa, Calif.

? Still, good to know what happens when you're lucky enough to get there.

In reference to players retiring at the French Open so they can "CTC," as Rasheed Wallace would say, could the Slams prorate the players for retiring? Or if a player says he's injured before the first round, could he still get a first-round check but let a qualifier or lucky loser play instead? That way the fans still get a match to watch, and the player still gets paid. -- Joe Mock, Canon City

? Between CTC ("Cut The Check") and "Ball Don't Lie," I don't think 'Sheed has gotten nearly enough credit for his contributions to the pop-culture lexicon. Anyway, that's not the worst idea -- especially with all the money the Slams have been throwing at the players lately. You could say: Every eligible player gets first-round loser money. If you choose to pull out, keep the cash and a lucky loser will take your spot. That way, we cut down on these first-round mercenary tank jobs.

The problem is that I'm not sure this meets a return-on-investment threshold. The extra slots would have cost the tournament well over $100,000. Do tournaments really suffer this amount if a few no-names retire and matches aren't completed? I'd argue "no."

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Just saw a replay of the end of the Serena-Sorana Cirstea match. Hilarious! Serena almost didn't bother shaking Cirstea's hand, she was so focused on charging the chair for that handshake. For her sake, hope that's not a bad omen. -- Helen, Philadelphia

? This has become quite a subplot among many of you. Will Serena lose a match here? And will she lose the race to the umpire's chair after the post-match handshake?

In response to Ernests' Gulbis comments about the Big Four, you wrote, "Being 'unboring' exacts a price on your image." And why is that? Is it because that most of us respect goodness and graciousness, rather than someone being able to publicly express the worst of themselves? Sure, there are plenty of people in the world who wouldn't mind being a$%^&*, but then why would we have any respect for them? I prefer my champions (yes, all four of them) to be consistent, gracious and men of good character. Someone you can point to and think, Hey, I wouldn't mind my son growing up like that man.-- Natasha, Toronto

? I get the irony here. Gulbis speaks his mind that the top players are boring. Then he gets hammered for speaking his mind. Which further motivates players to be boring. I think this is too simplistic. You can be candid, even outrageous, without being a jerk. It's not binary. I would also submit that the image pressures that are on Nadal and Federer are not the image pressures that are a player like Gulbis, who's ranked outside the top 10 and doesn't have an eight-figure endorsement income.

Why does John McEnroe keep calling Bjorn Borg his greatest rival when everyone knows that it was Ivan Lendl? --Stelio Savante, Los Angeles

? I think history has made Borg the No. 1 ally of McEnroe. I love McEnroe, but I would love it if the coverage were anchored in 2013. There's too much excellence today to have these references to 1983.

I understand that a new ball travels through the air much differently than an older one. However, how much does scuffing really affect the ball (like what Anabel Medina-Garrigues has done). By no means am I defending what she did -- cheating is cheating. I just ask because I've noticed that for the most part, Serena will go ahead and serve with whatever ball she is given.-- Jon, Philadelphia

? It's all about the strings.

It would obviously be an act of very poor sportsmanship, but is there a rule against a player wiping out a line mark before the umpire can get down from the chair and look at it? If a player is in the match of their life, and it's match point and a linesman calls a ball long that might have clipped the line, there's got to be a strong urge to destroy the evidence and prevent an overrule. (I'd love to hear the Paris crowd react to a player trying to pull that off.)-- Troy, The Woodlands, Texas

? That would be the height of unsporting. But I suppose you're right. It comes down to this: wouldn't you rather lose a match than the respect of your colleagues?

Look at the bright side: If a top-four player decided to shed the boring tag by tweeting his own inappropriate picture to his followers, at least someday he'd be able to run for mayor of New York City!-- Vijay Malhotra, San Francisco

? I'm equally awed and amused and confused that not a day goes by without a "question" that references Anthony Weiner.

Ever thought about doing a doubles-themed mailbag -- perhaps during a Slam (since that seems to be the only time that doubles get much attention at all)? -- Lilas Pratt, Marietta, Ga.

? Love that idea. Next week -- barring crazy news -- let's do that. We have Cara Black back in the mix. We have new teams. We have Lisa Raymond, idled because of Laura Robson's back injury. Love it.

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Shots, Miscellany

? Andre Agassi and Dana White in the same room. So much for that theory.

? tennis producer Nick Zaccardi has long-lost siblings: Landry from Friday Night Lights (Jesse Plemons) and Michael Schmidtmann, the coach of Dinah Pfizenmaier.

? Quinn Sutherland of New York: "Let's resurrect the Gilles Simon/Joaquin Phoenix resemblance (Simon, again/Phoenix, again). By the way, when do they release the lions on Chatrier?"

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