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Stephens and Kenin search for a renaissance

At major tournaments, everyone plays in the first round, but at most tour events, top players aren’t found on a Monday order of play. They’re resting and enjoying the bye a high seed has earned. High seeds are supposed to be better than the competition, but they’re also more rested because they don’t have to start tournaments until Tuesday night or Wednesday afternoon. Starting a tournament in the middle of a week is a marker of status and centrality in the tennis world.

Good things come to those who wait. In tennis, that familiar expression means fans wait for the top eight seeds when they begin play.

On Mondays, we see the players who are fighting to boost their ranking, or regain momentum, or find something which has been missing.

Players such as Sloane Stephens and Sofia Kenin.

Wait a minute. Those two players are major champions. They don’t fall into that category, do they?

It’s jarring to say it, but it’s true.

Sloane Stephens has remained good at making the fourth round of Roland Garros, but her larger career trajectory has drifted downward after her 2018 Roland Garros runner-up result. Stephens had the makings of a player who could forge a luminous and sustainable top-tier career, but the past four years have been a barren journey of largely unfulfilled potential. Coaching changes haven’t worked. Consistency has remained elusive. A reigniting spark has not been found.

It has been much the same for Kenin.

Interestingly, Kenin — like Stephens — didn’t struggle after making her first major final. Both players reached a second major final (for Kenin, it was Roland Garros 2020 against Iga Swiatek) and then lost their way. Kenin has searched for answers much as Stephens has, but solid discoveries have not materialized.

Monday in Toronto, dancing around raindrops, Stephens and Kenin played exactly the kind of match one would expect from two players in search of their games. Stephens couldn’t close the door. Kenin couldn’t start out of the blocks. Kenin rallied but couldn’t get over the hump. Stephens faltered but didn’t ultimately capitulate.

Stephens led by a 5-2 score in all three sets. She led 6-2, 5-1, and had match points at 5-1 in the second set. She led 5-2 in the third but was taken to 5-5. She could have allowed this match to get away, but regrouped just in the nick of time to prevail, 7-5 in the third.

The story of this match is not so much that one player won and the other lost, but that both players fought themselves. In seeing how they fought themselves even while they battled each other, did these two major champions learn something? Did they see a mirror reflection across the net? Did this frustrating, low-quality match awaken in these champions a hunger which might help them heading into New York, and give them something they can take into the November offseason and use as a building block for 2023?

It will be fascinating to see if this Monday — for a pair of players who surely expected to start important tournaments on Tuesday nights or Wednesday afternoons a few years ago — will inspire a powerful response from Sloane Stephens or Sofia Kenin.

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