Last year’s runner-up Sloane Stephens downed former champion Garbine Muguruza in straight sets on Sunday to book her place in the quarter-finals of the French Open to become the clear favourite in her half of the draw after the exits of World No 2 Karolina Pliskova and one of the pre-tournament much-fancied winners, Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands.
It's always tough when you're closing out a match. Garbiñe is such a good competitor. She'll fight until the end. I had to make sure I stayed steady on that last game. I was pleased to get through. Sloane Stephens
The 7th seed Stephens struggled with her serve but she was more consistent on Court Philippe Chatrier and set up a meeting with Britain’s Johanna Konta in the last eight.
While far from a thriller, the hard-hitting Muguruza and the steady Stephens put on an entertaining show.
After an hour and 40 minutes of play, Stephens prevailed, 6-4 6-3.
The 2016 champion was unplayable out of the gate, bagging 9 out of the first 10 points, while Stephens had no answer for the Spaniard’s aggressiveness, which included an extremely offensive return position.
The 3rd game was a turning point for the American, and even though Muguruza continued to dictate, Stephens lowered her imprecisions.
The two rivals went back and forth for nearly 10 minutes until Stephens seed picked up her first game of the match.
Muguruza was playing with razor-thin margins, painting lines, and yet, she had only a narrow 3-2 lead to show for it.
As soon as the Spaniard’s pinpoint accuracy began to dwindle, Stephens resilience paid dividends.
The American weathered a 20-minute thunderstorm, kept her composure and took the opening set 6-4.
She erased a couple of break points, down 1-0 in the second set, that likely would have sealed the deal.
When things started to go south for Muguruza, her nerves became clearly visible and her poker face was gone.
The 19th seed could not afford to go down a break and the 2018 finalist needed to land just one more punch to knock out her opponent, but she kept on squandering her opportunities.
To start the 8th game of the set, Muguruza hit back-to-back shots beyond the doubles alley.
Stephens then dragged the Spaniard to the net with a deft drop shot to create 2 break point chances.
Muguruza shot herself in the foot by missing a straight forward swing volley, handing Stephens the break she pursued.
Despite squandering her first 4 match points, Stephens successfully served out the match when Muguruza sent a return into the net on the 5th, setting up her meeting with Konta, and she will be looking to avenge her recent 6-7 6-4 6-1 loss to the Brit in Rome.
“I’m trying to hit a lot more forehands. So far, so good, it’s worked out well,” Stephens told Eurosport after the match.
“It’s always tough when you’re closing out a match. Garbiñe is such a good competitor. She’ll fight until the end. I had to make sure I stayed steady on that last game. I was pleased to get through.”
Meanwhile, Muguruza has failed to reach the quarter-finals at Roland Garros for just the second time since 2014.
Konta, the 26th seed has been playing like someone who is accustomed to deep runs on clay, dispatching her good friend, the 23rd seed, Donna Vekic in straight sets.
In her run to the quarter-finals, Konta’s biggest challenge so far has come in her second round match against American Lauren Davis, who pushed her to three challenging sets.
On Sunday, Britain’s No 1 turned in a remarkable Round of 16 performance, demonstrating her exceptional movement, defensive skills and strong serving.
She produced some strong stats, 73% first serve, 7 aces and 5 break points won, shaping the Brit’s fourth round win, 6-2 6-4.
While the Brit soared, Vekic had an atypical performance, under 50% first serve and winning just 46% of those meagre first service points.
“It’s nice for people to also enjoy matches where nothing’s a given and it can be unpredictable,” said Konta.
“That’s the beauty of sport, to have battles where you’re not sure what the end result is going to be until it happens.”
Asked if there was a feeling everyone was beatable, she replied: “I think that’s been the growing mood for quite some time now.”
Seven of the top 10 seeds have already gone out in Paris, including World No 1 Naomi Osaka, 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams and 2nd seed Karolina Pliskova.
As a result the women’s draw has been thrown wide open and two of the other players who booked quarter-final spots on Sunday will be appearing in the last eight of a Grand Slam for the first time.
Czech teenager Marketa Vondrousova and Croatian 31st seed Petra Martic are debutants at this stage, while 26th seed Konta had never won a main-draw match at Roland Garros until this week.
Now she is trying to become the first British woman to reach the semi-finals here since Jo Durie in 1983, with 2017 US Open champion Stephens standing in her way.