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STEPHENS D. MUGURUZA — A MAJOR MOMENT IN MIAMI

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Matt Zemek

“Major” is a relative term, but the Monday matchup between Sloane Stephens and Garbine Muguruza at the Miami Open was “major” if only because this clash pitted two of the last three major champions against each other. Last year marked the beginning of a new space in women’s tennis — not the post-Serena era, but the period in which Serena’s presence in a draw doesn’t make her the automatic favorite at an event. 

When the members of the WTA went to Paris for Roland Garros last May, no one knew what would happen. More precisely, no one knew how women’s tennis would evolve without its main star and, for that matter, with Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova not in position to win the biggest tournaments on the calendar. The results were highly encouraging — not because Jelena Ostapenko won in Paris, but because the quality of tennis was so good. The WTA showed it could not only survive, but thrive, in this new and different context.

At Wimbledon and then the U.S. Open, Muguruza and Stephens soared to the forefront while Ostapenko was knocked on her heels. 

The tennis was great, but beneath the major championships for some of the younger faces on the tour, a legitimate question: Would the excellence last? 

After the U.S. Open, Stephens profoundly struggled while also running into another injury. Muguruza had a solid summer after winning Wimbledon, but in the fall, she — like Stephens — fell on hard times. She stumbled in China and could not advance past the round-robin stage of the WTA Finals. She was not fully healthy at the Australian Open, when she lost in the first week to an in-form Hsieh Su-wei, and she did rebound in the Middle East by reaching the Doha final and the Dubai semifinals, but when she lost early in Indian Wells to Sachia Vickery (who didn’t even get out of the Miami Open qualifying rounds), Muguruza came to Key Biscayne needing a good run to show that she was ready to demonstrate her staying power on tour. 

Stephens came to South Florida with the same basic need, but Stephens at least defeated Azarenka in Indian Wells. Even though she won only one match in California, she bagged an impressive victory. Losing to Daria Kasatkina might have been frustrating at the time, but the loss looked very different one week after it happened: Kasatkina reached the Indian Wells final. Sloane had run into a hot player, whereas Muguruza lost to a player who is still trying to make main draws and is fighting for a place in tennis’s middle tiers.

Both players needed this match on Monday, but Stephens exhibited the patience and discipline she needed to stay the course. Her steadier baseline game was superior to Muguruza’s overly erratic offerings. 

Since both players did not play extended tournaments in Indian Wells, they both arrived in Key Biscayne as physically fresh players. More precisely, they came to Florida on the same basic footing, so it’s not as though one could explain the result due to one player’s advantages or the other’s deficits. This truly was an “even-terms” match, and Stephens was clearly the better player.

The “Staying Power Showdown” went to Sloane, who elaborated on a number of topics after the match.  

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Image taken from zimbio.com

 

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