The eight players from the bottom half of the draw who advanced to Sunday’s fourth round are an incredibly diverse group.
Two of them are Grand Slam champions -- and they have to play each other. Two of them are Top 10 players and two of them are ranked well lower than No.100 with a third at No.96. In between is a player who grew up in nearby Belgium with a chance to reach her first quarterfinal at Roland Garros. And a 30-something athlete intent on an uplifting comeback after injury.
Let’s get right to it:
No.2 Aryna Sabalenka vs. Sloane Stephens
Sabalenka finally cracked the Roland Garros code and advanced to the second week in Paris for the first time. She’s won all six of her sets with relative ease and has now won each of her 10 Grand Slam matches this year.
Stephens is well known for her 2017 title at the US Open, but don’t forget she was a finalist at the French Open a year later. She She loves the clay and has flourished in France, winning 36 matches in Paris -- 10 more than New York. Stephens knocked off No.16 Karolina Pliskova in the first round, Varvara Gracheva in the second and Yulia Putintseva in the third.
Sabalenka leads the series 3-0 -- but all three matches went three sets.
“She’s a great player,” Sabalenka said of Stephens. “It was always tough battles against her. She’s moving well, putting a lot of balls back. Not so many unforced errors from her. So you have to win the point. I’m really looking forward for this match.”
After reporters took Stephens through a series of questions about her time on the WTA Players’ Council, someone finally asked about Sabalenka.
“Oh, yeah,” said Stephens, “the actual tennis questions? I think it will be a great match. Obviously in the fourth round of a Slam on my favorite surface. It’s another opportunity to go out there and play and try to make the quarters of a Grand Slam. Who doesn't want to do that?”
No.9 Daria Kasatkina vs. Elina Svitolina
They’ve met six times, with Svitolina winning all six, beginning with New Haven in 2016 and ending with the 2021 US Open.
Svitolina, who gave birth to daughter Skai in October, is into the second week of her first major since becoming a mother. And she’s done it the hard way, coming back from a set down to qualifier Storm Hunter and, in the third round, to Anna Blinkova.
“Last two matches didn’t go my way in the first set, but I tried to fight back, tried to find my way into the match,” Svitolina said. “In the end, I could push through, could push through these tough moments to find my rhythm back. I’m working really hard just to find back my game.
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“As we can see, I’m moving slowly with wins, and this is a good sign that I’m doing something right.”
Svitolina has won seven straight matches, including her recent title in Strasbourg. She came in ranked No.192 among Hologic WTA Tour players but a win here would place her back in the Top 100.
No.28 Elise Mertens vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
This is Mertens’ third trip to the Round of 16 in Paris. In 2018, the Belgian lost to Simona Halep. Last year, it was Coco Gauff.
This time, Mertens is riding serious momentum after beating No.3 Jessica Pegula 6-1, 6-3 in the last round. It was her seventh career win over a player ranked in the Top 5.
Pavlyuchenkova, who missed the second half of the 2022 season with injuries, defeated No.15 seed Liudmila Samsonova in the second round and No.24 Anastasia Potapova in the third, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0.
They’ve split two career matches, both in 2017.
“It’s going to be a tough one, of course, but I’m going to focus on myself,” Mertens said. “I’m going to review and watch today’s match again, and I hope I'll have the best possible chances.”
Karolina Muchova vs. Elina Avanesyan
Try and wrap your head around this path to the second week at Roland Garros:
You lose in the final round of qualifying -- 10-7 in a super tiebreak -- and slide into the main draw as a Lucky Loser. Somehow, you find a way to upset No.12 seed Belinda Bencic in three sets, a lifetime achievement. Next, it’s wins over French wild card Leolia Jeanjean and fellow qualifier Clara Tauson to produce your first three major main-draw wins.
That’s how 20-year-old Elina Avanesyan got here. She came in ranked No.134 but is already up to No.78 -- a number that will allow her directly into Wimbledon without having to qualify.
Muchova defeated No.27 Irina-Camelia Begu 6-3, 6-2 and is starting to look like the player once ranked as high as No.19 before a series of injuries intervened.
These two have never played.