Trailing 5-4 in her first Wimbledon quarterfinal, Sloane Stephens already had saved two set points and was about to serve at deuce when a fairly nondescript match became anything but.
Raindrops were falling and Stephens’ opponent, 2007 runner-up Marion Bartoli, was trying to persuade a tournament official the Court 1 grass was dangerously slick. Spectators were booing and derisively whistling, angry at the prospect of play being suspended.
Eventually, Bartoli got her way. They stopped. The court was covered. For the ensuing 21⁄2 hours, no points were played. When they returned, Stephens — the last U.S. singles player at the All-England Club this year — was completely out of sorts. Soon, she was out of the field, dropping a hard-to-believe 19 of her first 20 service points after the rain delay and losing 6-4, 7-5 Tuesday to France’s Bartoli, one member of an altogether surprising semifinal quartet.
“I was like, ‘Wow, my serve is not happening right now.’ I tried a couple different things to kind of get it going. It just never really happened for me,” said Stephens, who won the first four games she served, then lost six of seven the rest of the way. “So as I was playing, I was like, ‘OK. This is not good.’ “
The initial point when play resumed ended with Stephens pushing a backhand long, giving Bartoli her third set point. The next lasted 27 strokes, with Bartoli hitting a drop shot and Stephens responding with a forehand that caught the net tape and bounced wide. Just like that, the opening set was gone.
Stephens, a 20-year-old based in Coral Springs, Fla., never recovered. After Bartoli went up 1-0 in the second set, part of a 10-point run, fans jeered her, and she put her hands near her ears.
“Honestly,” she said with a smile later, “it didn’t matter much to me.”
Asked whether Bartoli was employing gamesmanship by pushing for a delay at such a crucial moment, the 17th-seeded Stephens shrugged her shoulders and replied: “I don’t know. I don’t know. Who knows?”
The 15th-seeded Bartoli — who grips her racket with two hands off both wings, like her idol, Monica Seles — is seeking her first Grand Slam title. So are the other women left at the least predictable Wimbledon in memory: fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, 20th-seeded Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium, and 23rd-seeded Sabine Lisicki of Germany. It’s the first time in the 45-year Open era that no previous major champion reached the women’s semifinals at the All England Club.
“Very unexpected,” Bartoli said, summing up this crop of semifinalists and this entire tournament, “but that’s also the magic of it.”
On Thursday, Bartoli faces Flipkens, and Radwanska faces Lisicki. Bartoli is the only one who hasn’t lost a set — and she’s also the only one who hasn’t faced a past major champion.
Lisicki beat three along the way, most stunningly 16-time Grand Slam titlist Serena Williams in the fourth round Monday, then followed that by eliminating 46th-ranked Kaia Kanepi of Estonia 6-3, 6-3 in the quarterfinals.
Flipkens, who missed two months last season because of blood clots in her leg, continued her climb back from outside the top 250 in the rankings by winning her first major quarterfinal, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 over 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. Radwanska, who lost last year’s Wimbledon final to Williams, got past 2011 French Open champion Li Na 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-2.
Stephens and Bartoli — whose many quirks include hopping in place, taking practice swings between points, and not bouncing the ball before hitting serves — traded big groundstrokes from the baseline, creating entertaining points. There hadn’t been a service break entering that key 10th game, when Bartoli began talking to chair umpire John Blom about whether play should go on.
She scraped her shoes on the grass to indicate it was slippery. She pointed to her right hamstring, which had two thick, black, vertical strips of tape, as if to indicate an injury could occur. Last week, when there were a record-tying 13 withdrawals or mid-match retirements, some players wondered whether the footing is different this year.
During the discussion, Stephens waited near the baseline, left hand on hip. Within minutes, the precipitation increased, and the match was halted.
“Things like that happen, and you kind of just have to go with it,” Stephens said. “It’s definitely tough stopping and starting. I probably warmed up three times in the gym before we went back on the court.”
When they came back, Stephens no longer could win a point on her serve. She lost 14 in a row in one stretch and was broken at love four of the last five times she served.
“I hit some excellent returns,” Bartoli said.
The only reason Stephens kept things competitive was that she kept breaking Bartoli, too. There were eight straight breaks in all, until Stephens finally held for 5-5. Bartoli followed suit to lead 6-5, then broke again to end it.
This was only Stephens’ ninth Grand Slam tournament, and her second quarterfinal (she beat Williams to reach the Australian Open semifinals in January). One day, Stephens might rue failing to capitalize on the sort of opportunity this upset-filled fortnight presented.
On Tuesday, she spoke about the importance of moving on.
“I know where I want to be, and I know where I want to get to in the end,” Stephens said. “So I think it may not happen now, but as I work hard and I get older, I guess, it will hopefully eventually come.”