The ship of American tennis may be sinking, but the lifeboat occupied by women and children is jammed with a slew of interesting and promising survivors who might, over time, get to their destination. Two of them were in action Wednesday, with a split result.
Jamie Lee Hampton, who eliminated No. 27 seed Daniela Hantuchova in the first round, was beaten (6-2, 6-4) by a woman who knows what it's like to feel the hot breath of national pride on her neck, Britain's Heather Watson. Sloane Stephens, the best known and most successful American prospect, toughed it out against No. 23 seed Petra Cetkovska, 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-3.
The most impressive thing about Stephens, who has a nicely balanced game, is her composure. She's just 19 and solidly ensconced in the rankings at No. 59. More important, she has an 8-3 record at majors; the steady nerves and ability to manage pressure implied by that statistic were prominent features of her match Wednesday.
Stephens was assigned to Court 17, a rectangle of pale green sod shoe-horned between Centre and No. 1 Courts. The various dark green and gray walls, terraces, and buildings looming nearby make it feel a little like the court is on a lower deck on an aircraft carrier, which is kind of what the club in total has come to resemble.
The seating at 17 is limited, just a few rows of green plastic buckets, and spectators can come and go with utter disregard for what is happening on the court. Given the distractions and shunted-aside feeling any player can harbor having to play there, Stephens did a good job staying focused. She had to stave off five set points before she won the first-set tiebreaker, and had a lapse in the second. And despite being down 0-30 on every service game in the third set, she was broken just once - in the first game.
Stephens forced two errors out of Cetkovska to break for 5-3 in the third, and ended the match with authority when she arrived at match point in the next game, taking a service return and smacking a fierce forehand blast that proved too hot for her opponent to handle.
Stephens attributes her excellent record in majors to an ever-increasing ability to focus steadily on the game - the kind of attention she paid Wednesday, in a long and in many ways nerve-wracking match. "It takes time to build your focus and concentration," she explained. "I've been playing for so long now that it's about time it lasted. Playing higher ranked girls also has been good for me. I've learned to grind and grind and keep focusing. Every player goes through it, but I'm 19, so I do still have some lapses. But less now than in past."
The ability to grind and focus are qualities that Hampton will have to cultivate, although her loss to Watson on the decidedly more glorious venue of No. 2 Court was shaped by other, somewhat unexpected factors - starting with the crowd favorite's ability to, well, grind and focus. This was refreshing, given that Watson is British. The kind of misplaced enthusiasm and hope that often leads her countrywomen (or men) to collapse beneath the weight of their Britishness was absent from her game plan. She was intense and tough, impervious to letdowns even when the service breaks were coming fast and furious, and willing to hit the big shot when it really mattered.
I wanted to write about Hampton, though, because compared to some of her companions in the lifeboat (most notably Melanie Oudin and Stephens) she's little known. But if you're anything like me, watching her for 10 minutes might leave you thinking, Now that's a tennis player; that's someone who can put a smile on our faces and make us think, "Gee, I wish I could do that." She's that creative and smooth, even though at age 22 she still hasn't mastered all of her tools. It's a problem faced by many players who didn't just pop out of the cookie cutter, including Roger Federer.
Hampton's mother is Korean (her surname is the "Lee" appended to Jamie's name) and her father is a good ole boy from Arkansas (hence her cheery claim that "I'm pretty much a mutt," which is not as self-derogatory as it may sound because she happens to be a dog lover). Jamie was born in Germany but raised in Alabama, where she was, perhaps, free to develop her game in an environment more tolerant of the inventive.
Eschewing college, Hampton turned pro at age 19. She has climbed steadily to her present ranking of No. 100. She recently signed on with the USTA player development program (the Boca Raton, Fla. division), but has only worked with her new coaches for a week. And her win over Hantuchova the other day came in her first tournament of her career on grass-a surface on which her touch, variety, and athleticism will come in handy. She doesn't play like Justine Henin (Hampton has both one-handed and two-handed backhands), but is comparably explosive, smooth, and multi-faceted.
Hampton won her first singles match at a Grand Slam in Australia, and was on track to win her second recently in Paris, when she had to retire against Arantxa Rus with a back pain so bad so had trouble walking off the court. An MRI revealed that she has two herniated discs in her back, and that played a role in her disaster Wednesday - although she instructed me to give all the credit to Watson for playing a great match.
Hampton has been wearing black "core shorts" (they're designed to compress the core and can relieve back pain) in practice under her skirt, but Wimbledon officials decided shortly before the match that they were in violation of the predominantly-white dress code. It was a blow, given that the back troubles her most when she's arching to serve. But at the outset, the problem was in her foot, not her back. She was called for three foot faults in the first service game (at 0-1), one of them on a second serve. Rattled, she was broken and quickly fell behind 0-4; soon the set was gone, 6-1.
The contrast between the women was striking. Dressed in a puffy, pleated white tennis dress (a garment that automatically appears to add 15 pounds of weight and detract about 15 M.P.H. from the foot-speed of the wearer) and white tennis shoes customized with green laces, Watson looked younger than her 20 years and much less dangerous than most of the sharks with whom she swims. By contrast, Hampton looked sleek and sporty in her form-fitting white top and minimalist, tight white skirt. But it was obvious from early on that looks can be deceiving.
Watson didn't shrink from taking the game to Hampton, even when Hampton began to find her game in the second set. "Jamie is a great player," Watson said. "She hits the ball very hard. She got me more on the back foot." And her Watson's willingness to stand in and take those blows was impressive - and critical - especially in the heart of the second set, when the women traded four service breaks and Watson still clung to a 5-4 lead. Hampton held the next game, but Watson jumped out to 40-15 when she served for it. She double-faulted away her first match point but converted her second when Hampton drove a final forehand into the net.
"In the first set I was dictating play more," Watson said. "[Later] she was playing the big points well and making life quite tough for me. Well, I've been known as kind of a counter-puncher, you know, good at moving and reading the game well, and I wanted to get to the next step, improve my game. If you want to get to the next level, you have to change things. I've been working with my coach and Nick at the back there at being more aggressive, coming to the net. I can volley. I love to volley. Probably volleyed once today and missed it."
OK, so that last bit didn't work out so well. It was still a solid win (representing a British woman's trip to the third round for the first time in a decade), even if the lifeboat sails on.