PARIS May 29 (Reuters) - The sudden exit of the Williams sisters offers Sloane Stephens the chance to lift herself out of the American supporting cast at the French Open and prepare for the leading role.
The 21-year-old reached the third round at Roland Garros on Thursday with a 6-1 6-3 defeat of Slovenia's Polona Hercog, joining grand slam debutant Taylor Townsend in the last 32.
But they are the only two Americans still in the women's tournament out of the 14 who started.
After last year's French Open, Patrick McEnroe, the USTA's general manager of player development, said it marked a turning point for American women's tennis after four players reached the fourth round of a major for the first time since 2004.
The spread of quality is there, but none of the young American players has pushed on to revive memories of Chris Evert, Lindsay Davenport or Jennifer Capriati.
Fifteenth seed Stephens could be the one, though, if she can take her grand slam form into the regular tour and build up a level of consistency.
She has faced harsh criticism for lacklustre performances in recent tournaments - Stephens has lost four times in her first match this year - and for the impression she gives that she has got plenty of time to make it big, so why stress about it?
But she certainly raises her game when the big four tournaments come along and appears the most likely to take over when the career of Serena Williams, 32 and with 17 grand slam titles, calls it a day.
Stephens was one of the four American women who reached the fourth round in Paris last year.
Four then reached the Wimbledon third round, and Williams and Stephens went further. Five got into the U.S. Open third round, and Williams, Stephens and Alison Riske went further. Four reached the Australian Open third round and Williams and Stephens went further.
Stephens, whose power and movement along the baseline have been exceptional in her first two matches here, claims she has no explanation for the anomaly between her performances on tour and in the majors.
"If I knew what the switch was or what I was supposed to do, I would probably do it every week," she said. "I guess fortunately it's at the slams I play well - not too disappointed with that." (Reporting by Robert Woodward; editing by Ken Ferris)