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UNEVEN STEPHENS — BUT DON’T PANIC

by

Matt Zemek

The bad news: Sloane Stephens remains inconsistent.

She was inconsistent in her Wednesday match in Washington, D.C., against an improving Andrea Petkovic, who has spent many years trying to return to the form which carried her to the 2014 Roland Garros semifinals. Give Petkovic ample credit for bouncing back from a rough first set to dig out a three-set win over Stephens at the Citi Open. It is inspiring to see a player overcome obstacles and record a signature win in her career.

Sloane Stephens experienced that same sweet sensation last summer, when she returned from a long injury layoff and won the U.S. Open. She is very much aware of the ups and downs professional athletes must endure. The obvious criticism which will come her way after this loss: Doesn’t she have enough game — and hasn’t she demonstrated the heights of her capacity — to the extent that such profound variances between her best tennis and her worst tennis should not be so frequent?

It’s a legitimate question. It is a question which will continue to be asked in one form or another. That’s the bad news.

The good news: While inconsistency remains a constant for Stephens, so much else of her career is radically different from last year in Washington and from 2015 in Washington.

In 2015, Stephens won the Citi Open to claim her first WTA Tour title. Back then, it was widely felt in the tennis community that Stephens needed a breakthrough of some kind,

ANY KIND, to change her mentality and shake loose her best tennis. In 2017 at the Citi Open, Stephens was just beginning to dip her toes back into the waters of weekly competition. She played Simona Halep dead-even in a razor-close first set, which she lost in a tiebreaker. She showed enough in that set to indicate that her comeback would very likely turn into something much better. (How much better? We didn’t know just how high she would fly that summer, en route to a first major championship.)

Stephens got wiped out in the second set against Halep, but anyone could see that she had not established her base of fitness and just needed time to work her way back into playing shape. Her loss in Washington was encouraging, not frustrating. Sure enough, while much of the rest of the WTA Tour got tired in late August and early September, Stephens was comparatively fresh, and she rode that freshness to a trophy inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, winning tough and long matches which might not have gone her way had she played a full 2017 season.

This year in Washington, Stephens was not coming off a long layoff. Despite being a top-three player, she felt it important to begin her summer hardcourt season before the high-value Canada-Cincinnati double stack. This time, Stephens was not testing her game or her fitness. Those were not questions in the same way they were a year ago at this time. Stephens came to D.C. trying to impose a game which — as seen in New York and this past June in Paris — can carry her to major finals. It didn’t happen, but the circumstances of this uneven afternoon for Sloane were very different from 2017 and 2015.

Does that make her loss to Petkovic easier to accept? It can… and it probably does. If Stephens shifts into high gear in the coming weeks and gains a strong set of results at these next three big tournaments, no one will remember Washington. When players reach elite status as Stephens has, events such as Washington don’t become cornerstone successes or tipping-point failures in a season. They are “work your way into form” events more than anything else. They should not be seen as defining occasions when measuring the quality of a top tennis player.

Would American tennis fans love to see Sloane Stephens become more consistent? That’s a rhetorical question. However, does Stephens’ continuing lack of top-tier consistency represent a crisis? Hardly. As long as she regains her form at big tournaments — maybe not each one, but certainly at two of the four each year — days such as Wednesday against Petkovic won’t gain any added weight.

Uneven Stephens should not be a cause for panic — not in her camp, and not from her fans. It’s how she rolls, and sometimes, she rolls well… just not this week in the nation’s capital.

Image – Jimmie 48

2 comments

  1. This might be how Stephens rolls, Matt, but if she has any ambition to be great and not simply really-really-good-sometimes* then tourneys like Washington _do_ matter. Great players, and by that I don’t mean GOAT candidates only, simply don’t have regular losses to lower ranked players. Surely one of the greatest feats in tennis, to say nothing of all sports, was how long Nadal stayed at #2 behind Federer, never relinquishing his status to those below him as pretender to the throne. That didn’t happen because he posted frequent, seemingly inexplicable losses to his lessors. (Nor for that matter, did David Ferrer, who for years was the Most Dependable Quarter/Semifinalist In History®.)

    *I don’t mean to imply that Stephens is obligated to be a great player. That’s up to her. As my grandmother used to say to me, “If you’re happy, I’m happy.” The same goes for that other conundrum, Kyrgios, by the way. As long as they’re not complaining about their spotty results while not putting in the work to avoid them, or putting out the mental calories to fight, then it’s fine by me if they coast (sic) along. The owe the ticket buying public a fair effort, but not a maximizing of their potential.

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  2. Skip (is that you, Schwartzman?), well-made points. I would primarily respond by saying that elite players shouldn’t be playing Washington in the first place. 🙂 They should be resting up for the Canada-Cincy double stack. I guess Sloane felt that since she lost so early in Wimbledon, she could afford to play this event as a “refresher,” just to get her feet wet for Canada and Ohio, which makes sense.

    I can’t argue with anything you said about a champion’s mentality. The greatest champions don’t go through the wild swings of form Stephens endures, where her best is incredible and her worst is jarring. Sloane definitely has to work at raising her floor. Her ceiling is already high enough. You’re spot-on there.

    What Washington shows — and really, what this week on the calendar shows — is who feels insecure enough to have to play, and who feels secure enough to NOT have to play? That, to me, reveals a lot about players’ mindsets. Kevin Anderson didn’t feel he had to play, which is what a player who makes a second major final SHOULD think. He is clearly evolving in his thought process as his results and status improve in the sport. Thiem is exactly the other way, and there is a bit of Thiem in Sloane’s decision to play this week. That clouds the issue on champion’s mentality and the astute points you make. This doesn’t make you less insightful; it merely raises competing tension points from a different angle.

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