As a native of Phoenix, Arizona, I can tell you that this desert city — roughly a five-hour drive from Indian Wells — is a magnet for Midwestern Americans who want to either retire or spend winter months in a sunny climate. Phoenix is a place where sports bars can often be segmented based on whether they cater to fans of teams from Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, or other Midwestern cities.
If the Midwest is the region of the United States which forms a pipeline with Arizona, the Northeastern United States forms a similar pipeline with the state of Florida. People from Boston, Philadelphia and especially New York try to carve out a place in The Sunshine State, seeking either their own winter haven or the spot to live out their golden years.
In the world of WTA tennis, it has become very clear that another New York-to-Florida transition has been pulled off.
It is not as though Sloane Stephens — had she failed to beat Victoria Azarenka in Thursday’s first Miami Open women’s semifinal — would have had an unsuccessful tournament. Stephens’ run to the semifinals made her tournament a considerable success. She had already dismantled Angelique Kerber. She had already emerged from doubts surrounding the injuries which slowed her down last fall and at the Australian Open. She had already secured a spot in the top 10 for the first time. She had already shown that what she did in New York had been backed up with significant results and steady performances. She could have walked away from Key Biscayne with a lot to be happy about. She could have been satisfied, and she would have been right to be satisfied at that level.
This is when we see what athletes are made of — not in separating the great athletes from the mediocre ones, but in identifying athletes who possess a special added measure of greatness, who not only reach for the very best, but often gain what they seek. The aspirational fire burning within the athlete is the necessary prerequisite to forging an iconic career, but the ability and moxie to fulfill the highest aspirations is the other part of the story.
Sloane Stephens — who was getting dusted by an in-form Azarenka, 6-3 and 2-0 — could have settled for a semifinal paycheck and a very encouraging run at the Miami Open. She could have inwardly allowed her mind and body to concede that this just wasn’t her day, and that it was time for Azarenka, the 2016 Miami champion, to gain the spotlight in Saturday’s final. Azarenka was confident, especially from the backhand side, in the process of winning eight of the first 11 games of the match. Stephens was losing her shots, mostly long, unable to handle variations in pace from the two-time major champion on the other side of the net. Stephens wasn’t losing to an ordinary version of Vika; this was an above-average iteration — not top form, but close enough to make the whole WTA locker room take notice with most of the 2018 season yet to be played.
Lacking precision against a hungry and confident opponent, Stephens could have relented at 6-3, 2-0.
She lost only one more game after that point.
In the second set, one could have reasonably made the argument that Azarenka’s errors in critical situations provided the fuel for the Stephens comeback. In a more expanded version of the three-game rally Stephens briefly made in the first set before allowing a run of five straight games in the other direction, Azarenka lost control of her forehand, mistiming balls in ways which caused her to hit the middle third of the net. Azarenka’s proficiency from the back of the court was pronounced in the first 11 games of the match, but even when she was winning, Vika never did inspire complete confidence at net, and in the middle of the second set, she let a number of important points slip through her fingers because she wasn’t able to cleanly knock off a volley.
Stephens sensed an opening. She didn’t merely enter the room when Vika opened the door for her; she barged through the portal and took ownership of the house known as stadium court at the Crandon Park Tennis Center.
Midway through the second set, Azarenka lost hold of the quality tennis which had put her in a winning position, but toward the end of the second set and throughout the third, this was Stephens’ match, defined by Stephens’ imprint and Stephens’ aggressive hitting.
In what had been a volatile match with abrupt and severe shifts in momentum, Stephens put an end to the volatility by never giving Azarenka a chance to mount a third-set comeback. This three-set win over an accomplished player who posed significant challenges recalled the problem-solving player who outfoxed Anastasija Sevastova and Venus Williams at the U.S. Open. This was the iteration of Stephens which has ripened into a complete player — able to hit and defend vigorously while shrugging off negative sequences and remaining airtight as a competitive force.
This is not new, but in the process of analyzing tennis matches year after year and decade after decade, the same basic truths emerge: Anyone can play great tennis for several games, but the true measure of a player is taken when she falls into a rut and watches an opponent gain the upper hand. Players have to be able to wait out opponents and eventually reverse the run of play. Major titles and Premier Mandatory trophies — once in a great while — might be won with dominant, overwhelming tennis, but the vast majority of the time, a player must flip a bad script into a feel-good ending in order to become a champion.
Sloane Stephens did this in New York. She has imported this winning formula to South Florida.
She now gets to play the last WTA final held at Crandon Park before the Miami Open switches venues next year.
Don’t think Sloane won’t be able to import her game to a new location — she has become very good at that art this fortnight in Key Biscayne.
Image taken from zimbio.com