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SLOANE STEPHENS AND THE HOUSE WITH MANY DOORS

by

Matt Zemek

When one door closes, another door opens. This is a way of viewing Sloane Stephens’ 2018 tennis season. It is also a way of viewing the ebb and flow of women’s tennis in recent years.

The world of women’s tennis is very stable if you view it through the prism of Simona Halep, the woman who will oppose Stephens in Sunday’s Montreal final. Halep gained the year-end No. 1 ranking last autumn, then made the Australian and French Open finals, and has now powered her way to the final in Quebec. Halep has made the semifinals or better in a majority of her 2018 tournaments (7 of 11). She has made the quarterfinals in 9 of her 11 tournaments, Miami and Wimbledon being the only exceptions. She has become the embodiment of steady performance.

That stands out on a tour where Stephens is more representative of elite players. Stephens, one can very reasonably argue, is the best non-Halep player on tour, which also makes her the best inconsistent player on tour this year.

Angelique Kerber, not Stephens, is the second-most CONSISTENT player on the WTA Tour in 2018, with an Australian Open semifinal, a French Open quarterfinal, Indian Wells and Miami quarterfinals, and a Rome quarterfinal in addition to her Wimbledon championship. In terms of weekly or monthly dependability, Kerber has come the closest to matching Halep, but if consistency is removed from the equation, it would be fair to say that Stephens has had the second-best year on tour.

Sloane might not go deep in most tournaments she plays, but when she does, she leaves an undeniable and large imprint. Stephens won Miami — a title neither Halep nor Kerber secured — and reached the French Open final. She is one win away from a second significant hardcourt title this season, whereas Halep (French Open champion) and Kerber (Wimbledon) won their big 2018 trophies on natural surfaces, which aren’t featured in remaining competitions this season. Stephens might be volatile, but her game is more imposing than anyone else’s right now… which is much the same way Garbine Muguruza’s game looked when the Spaniard rolled to the Cincinnati title in August of last year.

Stephens has, in many ways, displaced Muguruza in both the height of her ceiling and the penchant for inconsistency over longer periods of time. Like Muguruza in her previous seasons, you don’t know what to expect in any single tournament from Stephens, but you also know that if she’s on, she is the toughest out in the field.

One door closes at one tournament? Fine. Another door will open soon enough.

One door — Muguruza’s — closes in the search for the WTA’s next big star? Fine. A new door has opened for Sloane to surpass Muguruza in that regard. This is not a prediction from me, merely a note about how the winds of change have blown through the WTA Tour in short order within this context of chaos, and of players (Jelena Ostapenko, Naomi Osaka, and others providing further examples) being great in select moments but unreliable over broader stretches of time.

One can’t discuss Stephens in the context of “one door closing, another door opening” without mentioning the woman she defeated in Saturday evening’s Montreal semifinal.

In June of 2017, Elina Svitolina had arrived at the quarterfinals of the French Open after having won in Dubai and Rome. She was building momentum as a next-level force to be reckoned with. She was blasting through the tour and — in the course of the 2017 season — won 15 straight matches at Premier 5 tournaments, capturing three separate titles. In that French Open quarterfinal, she led by a set and 5-1 against the woman Stephens will face in the Montreal final.

When Simona Halep improbably mounted and completed a dramatic comeback, Svitolina lost her best chance to make a first major semifinal and win a first major title. Maybe she will gain more prime opportunities in the future, but no one can know that, and what’s more relevant at this moment is that Stephens was comprehensively better than Svitolina on Saturday in Quebec.

Stephens and Svitolina try to do a lot of the same things on court — defense, counterpunching, relying on consistency to win points — but it was clear from the start that Stephens is a better version of Svitolina, equipped with a bigger serve and more forceful groundstrokes which can up the ante in rallies. Svitolina had no safe place to go in this matchup and couldn’t find ways to throw Stephens off balance. Stephens, in marked contrast, has more ways to win points than most of the other players she faces on tour. This Montreal semifinal was no exception.

It is a fascinating question, is it not: What if Svitolina had defeated Halep at the 2017 French Open and had won her first major then? Would she have slid down the ranks on the list of WTA major title contenders, to the point that Stephens could so clearly outclass her in a Premier 5 semifinal? While you wrestle with that topic, realize this: Halep just might have prevented Svitolina from making a pronounced ascension on the WTA Tour, closing one door so that after the regression of Muguruza in 2018, Sloane Stephens could step through it.

When one door closes, another opens. Who will open the door to the 2018 Montreal title? It is hard to bet against Simona Halep, but just as hard to distrust Sloane Stephens when everything is lining up for her.

Image – Jimmie 48

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