How to mentally prepare for a match in which the player across the net appears to have your number? That was one of the challenges Sloane Stephens faced as she walked out to Court no.1 to take on Johanna Konta at Wimbledon.
She had lost to Konta three times before Saturday, all in 2019, with the freshest memory being the 6-1, 6-4 drumming she received at Roland Garros just 32 days ago. If Konta could topple her that handily on the red clay of Paris (she also beat her in Rome, in three sets), it only made sense that she should be able to pull off that feat on the grass courts at SW19, with the crowd firmly rooting for her.
There was some possible silver lining in the cards for Stephens. As my colleague Matt Zemek insisted in his piece on Thursday, a win for Sloane over Jo here carried a significant upside for the American’s 2019 season, both in the short and long terms.
Stephens came out with a determined game plan.
Without going into too much detail, she executed her trademark tennis for almost two full sets. Don’t take my word for it. Here is what Jo said in the postmatch press conference:
“My opponent has the ability to play very, very well. I mean, she’s not a Grand Slam champion for no reason. She was playing really, really well at the beginning. I mean, there wasn’t a lot in it for me to be finished after two sets. So I’m just really pleased to have competed and just really try to find a way to get myself into the match.”
Stephens hardly gave any free points away (seven unforced errors in the first two sets – my own count). Aware of Konta’s habit of nailing returns, she kept changing her serve placement and using her nonpareil anticipation skills to get ready for Jo’s shot so that she could send that first missile back and engage in the rally. Of course, long rallies favored her (she won none out of the 14 rallies of nine shots or more in those two sets).
She also avoided monotonous rallies for the most part, particularly the back-and-forth-bang-bang rallies that Konta was anxious to draw her into, by mixing in the occasional high topspin or low slice. If you want to see a fitting example of one such point among several, watch the 15-30 point, with Konta serving at 3-4 in the first set.
A nine-shot rally showcased a forehand slice that threw Konta off balance, some deep cross court drives on both wings that kept Jo scrambling, and a wonderful forehand winner that ended it. A second and even better example took place on the first point of the second game in set number two. This time, Stephens displayed her variety as well as her ability to use all the real estate on her opponent’s side of the court to push Konta around, eventually winning it with a forehand winner after a 13-shot rally.
I did, however, say above that she executed her trademark for almost two full sets.
I used “almost” only because there were a few points in the 1-1, 2-2, and 4-5 games of the second set that did not go her way, paving the way for Konta to “steal” the second set from Stephens. This brought on one of those cliché moments in tennis where it feels like one player held the reins of a particular set (consequently, of the match) only to have it snatched away by the other at the last moment. Ask Novak Djokovic about the third set of the 2013 U.S. Open final, or more recently, Stan Wawrinka about the fourth set of his first-round loss to Reilly Opelka this week. They can tell you about how it feels to lose a set that you thought you had in your hands. The end result is that the player in question is temporarily dazed, unable to immediately register in their minds the scope of the scoreboard-related disaster that just occurred.
It is hard to recover from that realization, and thus was the case, I presume, for Stephens.
Konta also noticed a drop in Sloane’s level:
“She definitely dropped her level a little bit in the beginning of that third set,” she said. She also added, “I think that’s also credit to how I was raising my level in that second set.”
Agreed on both accounts.
When the third set began, Stephens went through her worst sequence of the match by far, losing a blank game to open the set and squeezing three unforced errors into the next (I reiterate, she made only seven unforced errors until then) to lose her serve and find herself down 2-0.
She seemed to recover after that, but by then, there was some stellar stroke production steadily flowing her way from the other side of the net by an opponent whose confidence peaked. That translates into bad news for her opponents, because when Konta goes on a roll, she can relentlessly crush the ball and run you ragged. After chasing down a few, they helplessly watch Jo’s next missile zoom by for a winner to ultimately lose the point.
That is what happened again and again in the third set, when Konta hit eight winners (four from the baseline, four at the net) and won a load of points on forced errors by Stephens, who was by now, unlike earlier in the match, striking the ball hard to gain some momentum, although it probably played into Konta’s hands at that point of the match.
Konta literally raced to the finish in the third set, delighting the Court No. 1 crowd which stood up and gave her a standing ovation (Stephens congratulated her by clapping her racket too) after she won a spectacular point to go up 5-1. She lost only one point in the last game, winning by a final score of 3-6 6-4 6-1 in two hours and two minutes.
The turnaround took place in three small chunks in the second set. Was the turnaround Stephens’s own doing or did Konta yank it away from her opponent? Let’s take a closer look and I will add my opinion at the end of each segment.
1) 1-1, second set:
Stephens has a break point at ad-out on Konta’s serve. Konta hits a 93-mile first serve that lands on the service line, but it’s to the middle of the box and very returnable. Sloane’s backhand return hits the tape, the ball bounces up, and lands down barely back on her side. But don’t call that unlucky. Stephens should have made that return, especially considering her standard of play during that stretch of the match.
Opinion: Missed opportunity by Stephens to possibly gain the decisive lead.
2) 2-2, second set:
Stephens had three more break points in this game. Konta deserves the credit for saving all of them, the first and the third coming on forced return errors by Stephens when she had to reach to the outside court on both due to Konta’s well-placed serves. One can argue that she could have simply landed them in instead of trying to go for placement herself on those returns, but you must keep in mind that when you are pulled wide on a serve, and you choose to “just land the return in,” your opponent has the other corner wide open, available for a winner on the next shot. In fact, that is how most 1-2 punch winning combinations take place, and if you know Konta, you know she loves 1-2 punch combinations on first serves. So, it is understandable that Stephens felt the need to do more than just sail the ball in the court on those returns.
The second break point is worth your re-watch if you have the match available. Konta plays a terrific point, one of her best in the match, aggressively going for her shots and finishing it at the net a swing-volley winner.
Opinion: Credit to Konta for hitting gutsy shots on break points and remaining in the match!
3) Stephens serving at 4-5, second set:
By this time, Konta had weathered the storm and was beginning to play well, having just hit two of her three aces in this set to hold serve in the previous game at 4-4. However, Stephens was still producing high-quality tennis and had not even conceded a break-point opportunity to Konta. At that point in the set, Sloane’s unforced-error count was at two!
On the 15-15 point, she made her third unforced error when she missed a forehand that she struck hard from the top of the baseline into the net. Konta eventually had her first break (and set) point but Stephens saved it with a wonderful 1-2 punch combination forehand winner. At deuce, Konta attacked the net with a solid approach shot and won point with a completely framed overhead. On her second set point, spectators witnessed the best rally of the match to that stage in the contest, with both women landing one deep shot after another. Konta finally accelerated a forehand on the 12th shot of the rally for a clean winner, stealing the set. The crowd erupted, anxious to see a third set.
Opinion: Too harsh to blame the game on the unforced error at 15-15, although it did play a minor role. 90% credit to Konta!
Now that I have broken down the sequences that essentially tilted the match in favor of Konta, I have a question for you, the reader:
Would you conclude that Stephens “squandered the match” away? Or would you say that Konta earned the comeback and the match herself?
Yes, you can also say “a combination of both for me,” but which one of the two interpretations holds more water in your combination? Feel free to leave your answer below or let me know on social media, but I’ll go first.
In my opinion, Johanna Konta forged one of the best comebacks I have seen this year.
Yes, there is that one return at 1-1 in the second that Stephens should not have missed, but to be precise, had she returned the ball in, it would not have guaranteed her the point, although it would have helped her engage yet in another rally during the period of the match where she was winning most of the rallies. The truth remains that Konta dug deep and punched away until she formed some dent in the armor of her adversary, whose game was otherwise functioning at maximum efficiency. Furthermore, once that opening presented itself, Konta elevated her game to a new heights to ensure that her opponent did not linger around the way Jo herself was able to, early in the second set.
As for Stephens, what Matt called “a match that is more important than other 2019 matches Sloane Stephens will play,” slipped away from her. She is surely disappointed, but the larger question is, and Matt touched on this too, will it affect her performance in the U.S. hardcourt season leading up to the U.S. Open, and the U.S. Open itself? It’s important because reaching the latter stages of big tournaments on a consistent basis is something that could catapult Stephens to the next level, and unfortunately for her, Wimbledon would have been an excellent place to start.
Konta plays Petra Kvitova on Manic Monday. I cannot wait for that one.