At the end of the 2017 women’s tennis season, Sloane Stephens and Garbine Muguruza were both the same kind of player.
Stephens had won the U.S. Open after an injury layoff and, before that, several years in which she couldn’t quite put all the pieces together at the biggest tournaments. Her run to the 2013 Australian Open semifinals — complete with a win over Serena Williams — gave the tennis world a first bright look at what she could do, but the next few seasons didn’t neatly fall into place.
At the end of 2017, however, Stephens had demonstrated an ability to produce a complete tournament. Few expected unrelenting consistency — that has never been Stephens’ way of proceeding — but plenty of people began to think she would continue to be a top threat at the majors, the hardcourt majors for sure.
At the end of 2017, Garbine Muguruza was a natural surface specialist at the majors, but her Cincinnati title — claimed with a 6-0, 6-1 blowout of Simona Halep in the final — showed she could perform on hardcourts. Muguruza, who had won her second major at Wimbledon earlier that year, reminded everyone in tennis that while the hardcourt majors remained elusive, she was normally able to elevate her game at either Roland Garros or SW19.
At the end of 2017, Muguruza and Stephens both figured to remain up-and-down players, but they both figured to maximize their best periods and translate them into one major final per year, every year. They wouldn’t always thrive, but when they DID, they would play for the biggest championships in tennis.
Stephens, with her 2018 Roland Garros final appearance, reaffirmed this theme. (Muguruza lost in the semis, which kept her relevant, albeit not on the same scale as Sloane.)
In June of 2018, it was still reasonable to think that these two immensely talented tennis players — while not ready to dominate the tour from January through October — would continue to resurface once in a while and remain annually relevant on tour.
Then came 2019.
The closest either woman got to a major final was Stephens, who beat Muguruza in the fourth round of Roland Garros… and then got demolished by nemesis Jo Konta in the quarters. Tuesday at the U.S. Open, the bleakness and barrenness of these two careers were made plain.
Muguruza lost to Alison Riske after winning the first set. Stephens lost to qualifier Anna Kalinskaya in the night session. The return of coach Kamau Murray was unable to provide a lift to Stephens, all while Muguruza’s year — also marked by a coaching change — remained adrift.
Stephens won’t defend her WTA Finals points, causing her to sink lower in the rankings heading into 2020. Muguruza, utterly lost at sea, has to start from scratch next year.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this… but it is.
These players still have time on their side — they aren’t in a Fabio Fognini world of being in their early 30s with the biological clock about to strike midnight. Yet, they have just finished an utterly miserable year at the four tennis majors.
The urgency of needing to maximize their talent needs to kick in next year.