NEW YORK -- Sloane Stephens isn't ready to relinquish her status as the next big thing in American tennis anytime soon. In the first match between two American women under the age of 24 on Arthur Ashe Stadium since Serena and Venus Williams in 2002, Stephens delivered a clean, clinical, 6-1, 6-3 win over 26th-ranked Jamie Hampton to advance to the fourth round, where she will face Serena on Sunday.
Though three years younger than Hampton, Stephens' experience of playing on the biggest courts on the biggest stages showed. She's the only player ranked outside the top four to make the second week of all four Grand Slam tournaments this year, while Hampton was into the third round of the U.S. Open for the first time. Nervous from the outset, Hampton offered error after error as she struggled with the swirling winds that can descend on Arthur Ashe Stadium at any given moment. It was Hampton's first time on Ashe and she seemed overwhelmed by the prospect of taking on such a familiar opponent with so much at stake.
"I think that she's had a lot more experience on the big stage," Hampton said. "I think personality‑wise she embraces it a little better than I do. With my personality, I tend to shy away from it a little bit.
"I think that I've had tendencies to play really bad in big moments. Kind of sucks. I'm incredibly, incredibly disappointed in the way I played today."
Hampton said she has been talking to a sports psychologist to help her learn to embrace the pressure. Asked what they talk about, Hampton laughed. "You don't want to hear my issues, believe me."
Since Stephens' narrow first-round escape against 110th-ranked Mandy Minella, which she won 7-5 in the third-set tiebreaker, she played some of her best tennis of the year to defeat two top-40 opponents in Urszula Radwanska and Hampton. Stephens can get stuck playing passive and error-strewn tennis, but against Radwanska and Hampton she hit big on her forehand while demonstrating good footwork and setup around the ball.
Stephens' athleticism is what sets her apart. Many on the women's tour can hit a big ball but they can't move or defend well. And there are quick players who can scramble and cover the court, but can't seem to hit a winner. Stephens' combination of pure power and speed make her a very difficult opponent to break down when she's playing well.
Against Hampton, the turning point came early for Stephens. Hampton was broken in her first service game but was able to avoid going down 0-3 early, saving a game point to break back to get on serve at 2-1. A strong service game got her to 40-0, but while in full control of the point at 40-30, she sent a forehand drop shot wide instead of simply pushing it into the open court. Stephens went on to win the next five games to take the set in 30 minutes as Hampton fell victim to an abundance of unforced errors, of which there were 34 in total. The match was over 33 minutes later.
A late bloomer who has put together a career year to break into the top 30 for the first time, Hampton, 23, is still very much a work in progress. Her game combines good power off the ground with some entertaining shot-making thanks to great hands and feel at the net. She did well to handle the pressure of playing her first Slam as a seeded player and she lived up to her ranking in making the third round. But under pressure against a solid Stephens, she just couldn't unlock her game and get to the net the way she wanted.
"I think my natural tendency is to come forward," Hampton said. "However, the recent developments in my game, I've been struggling a little bit with [them], trying to have better shot selection. I don't know. Sometimes I get a little confused with the transition and stuff. I've been drifting back a little bit more. I think that's one of the things I'll address in the offseason."