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SLOANE STEPHENS AND THE HOUSE WITH MANY DOORS

Saqib Ali

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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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2019 Evaluation — Wang, Barty and Kontaveit

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

Among WTA players who have not yet made an especially large imprint on the tennis world, three took encouraging steps forward in China: Wang Qiang most of all, followed by Ashleigh Barty and Anett Kontaveit. Qiang made two semifinals to substantially boost her world ranking. Barty once again made the Wuhan semifinals after reaching the 2017 final. Kontaveit made her first Premier 5 final in Wuhan.

While it is true that Aryna Sabalenka has — like Wang, Barty and Kontaveit — never gone past the fourth round at a major, the Belarusian professional has played such imposing tennis for much of the past two months that her star is rapidly rising. Moreover, the fact that the player she lost to at the U.S. Open — Naomi Osaka — then won the tournament only magnified Sabalenka. The 20-year-old has created a sensation on tour.

Wang certainly generated excitement, and Barty has made some small steps forward. Kontaveit just produced, in Wuhan, her best tournament to date. Yet, all three deserve to be seen a few notches below Sabalenka across the board — in terms of achievements, potential and consistency. Sabalenka is not well-established in terms of longevity — before August, she was off the radar relative to the top tier of WTA tennis. Yet, what Sabalenka lacks in familiarity has been compensated for with her meteoric nature of her rise.

Sabalenka is not on the same plane as Wang, Barty or Kontaveit. She has exceeded those three by most reasonable measurements. This is not a criticism of the trio, merely a necessary distinction between a player who has dramatically raised expectations for her career and three other players who sit in a more uncertain position.

Let’s spend a little more time to discuss what might be in store for Wang, Barty and Kontaveit in 2019.

The biggest thing Wang has going for her is that at age 26, she is in that sweet spot between wide-eyed unfamiliarity and the pains of advanced age for an athlete. She has been around the block a few times but has lots of miles yet to travel. Notice how many other players in their mid-20s are improving or have improved this year: Simona Halep performed a lot of heavy lifting before turning 27 in September. Kiki Bertens soared at 26 as well. Sloane Stephens won Miami, made the French Open final, and reached the Montreal final at 25. This is the prime period for most athletes. Wang resides there, and this double taste of success in China could give her the confidence and resources to take the next step in 2019.

The main concern for Wang: The disparity between her results in China (and more broadly, Asia) and her results in other parts of the world is so pronounced that she carries a burden of proof into the new season. It is true that being seeded doesn’t mean that much on the WTA Tour these days. There are so many good players and so few who go deep in most of them. Yet, Wang will be seeded at the Australian Open and has certainly given herself a chance to do well. I very much look forward to seeing more of her in 2019, especially since at 26, she owns a task marked by more urgency than the younger players mentioned next.

One of those players is Ashleigh Barty. I noted in the summer that her Montreal semifinal was very important. She needed to show that she could play well in the middle part of the tennis season, not just autumn, when the points and rankings count just as much but the level of relevance can be diminished (see Caroline Garcia last year). Barty’s Montreal and Wuhan semifinals these past two months show that she can fit into the WTA’s larger architecture of players who occasionally make big runs at important tournaments… but now she has to take that identity to the majors in 2019. If Barty can slightly raise her floor at the Premier 5s and Mandatories while reaching at least one major quarterfinal next year, she will probably be able to say that her career is on the right track.

Next is Anett Kontaveit, the Wuhan finalist. Kontaveit beat Sloane Stephens in Wuhan, which is an impressive win but also the kind of win other WTA players have been able to swipe from Sloane in recent years. Stephens just doesn’t handle the Asian swing all that well. Credit Kontaveit for pouncing on a great opportunity — that’s what autumnal tennis is often about for pros in search of points and prize money infusions — but as an indicator for 2019, it might not mean a lot.

The match in Wuhan which might mean more for Kontaveit was her quarterfinal win over an improving Katerina Siniakova. If Naomi Osaka-Aryna Sabalenka is shaping up to be the Next Great Rivalry (capital letters warranted) in women’s tennis, Kontaveit and Siniakova could play in a lot of quarterfinals and R-16s over the next seven years. Kontaveit snatched that match and that points bounce from Siniakova’s grasp, making her Wuhan visit an unquestioned success.

Kontaveit’s biggest regret from 2018 was either her limp 2018 Roland Garros performance against Stephens in the fourth round, on her preferred clay surface, or her almost-but-not-quite loss to Carla Suarez Navarro in the fourth round of the Australian Open. Kontaveit was a set and 4-1 up. She lost the second set but battled back and served for the match late in the third, but got broken and eventually fell 8-6 in the decider. Kontaveit could learn from these setbacks or become weighed down by them. Her 2019 season doesn’t have to reach stratospheric heights; it merely needs to reveal a steadier set of responses to big situations, resulting in consistently improved results.

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Many Songs to Sing in Beijing and the Asian Swing

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

What is my biggest takeaway from the China Open in Beijing, the centerpiece of the WTA’s “Asian Swing”?

I have lots of choices, all of them good.

I could focus on the Beijing champion, Caroline Wozniacki… but I chose to do that in this piece on Sunday. 

I could focus on Wang Qiang, who stacked together semifinals in Beijing and Wuhan to rocket into a seeded position for the 2019 Australian Open. Yet, I wrote about her here at Tennis With An Accent.

I could focus on Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka, two women who did not win the title — or even make the final — but who nevertheless produced solid weeks under the circumstances and kept themselves centrally on the radar screens of tennis fans headed into 2019.

I could focus on Anastasija Sevastova, who made the semifinals at the U.S. Open and, mere weeks later, reached a Premier Mandatory final in Beijing. I made note of how rare that feat was — and is — in this piece at TWAA. 

Yet, while all those stories are good choices as a foremost Beijing headliner, I was struck by a dynamic at this tournament which transcended a single player. It was most profoundly embodied by the two finalists — Wozniacki and Sevastova — but it flowed through the tournament, which once again left very few seeded players entering the latter stages. Only two of the top eight seeds made the quarterfinals: Wozniacki (seeded second) and eighth-seeded Naomi Osaka.

Maybe, you might tell me, the inability of power hitters to more regularly impose their games on counterpunchers or change-up artists is a sign that the WTA’s depth isn’t as special as I think it is.

We could debate that point, but it is a fair one. I can certainly understand why someone would look at Karolina Pliskova or Garbine Muguruza and wonder why those players can’t throw down the “big babe tennis” template and dominate more often. That is a reasonable inclination.

However, I have believed for a long time — having seen so many monochromatic women’s matches (in years before this new ocean of quality depth emerged, I might add) — that women’s tennis was waiting for more players to exhibit more variety in spin, placement, angle, and raw pace. WTA tennis, even in the midst of Serena Williams’ dominance of the tour in 2015, had a place for players who could play in a different way.

The 2018 China Open reaffirmed that.

At the U.S. Open, the hitters ruled. Serena, Osaka, and Madison Keys all made the semifinals, with Sevastova being the one exception. In Wuhan, Sabalenka blitzed the field and won the final against Anett Kontaveit, who also hits the cover off the ball and does not play tennis with a velvet glove.

Beijing changed the equation.

It not only elevated Wozniacki to the title and Sevastova to a Premier Mandatory final; the China Open showed in previous rounds how “less is more” in some instances.

Wang Qiang might have illustrated this principle better than most — not just by reaching the semifinals, but when considering the people she defeated to get there.

Wang handled Jelena Ostapenko, Pliskova, and Sabalenka on her road to the semis. You might say, with legitimate reason, that Sabalenka was a bit drained after winning Wuhan. You would not be wrong. Nevertheless:

  1. Sabalenka led Wang 3-0 in the first set. It took a lot of work for Wang to come back.
  2. Wang wasn’t exactly fresh as a daisy. She made the Wuhan semis and had to retire against Kontaveit.

Wang showed very clearly in Beijing that power and speed — while great qualities to have as a hitter of a tennis ball — don’t represent the first, best or only solutions on court.

Wang did what many WTA players are good at doing these days: She turned an opponent’s power and pace into weaknesses by running down shots and redirecting the ball into open spaces. The hitters hit hard, but that meant Wang’s replies came back at them with interest. Hitting hard wasn’t necessarily an advantage. Wang loved the pace which was thrown at her.

When Wang reached the semifinals against Wozniacki, she went up against a completely different kind of opponent. Had Wang played a different assortment of opponents before the semifinals, she might have been more prepared for the shifting of gears Wozniacki required her to make. She wasn’t. Wozniacki’s spins and an overall reduction in pace threw Wang off balance. A temporary infusion of patience enabled Wang to compete well at the start of the second set, but that 15- to 20-minute pocket of play was the most Wang could offer. She lost eight of the first nine games of the match and each of the last four games of the match in a 6-1, 6-3 loss. Wozniacki didn’t give Wang the pace she wanted. Less was more for the Dane who managed to reign this past week.

Yes, Osaka was not physically healthy by the end of this tournament. Yes, Serena didn’t play. Yes, at the 2019 Australian Open, the hitters might once again rule. However, this Premier Mandatory event was controlled by the change-up artists, after a 2018 Montreal tournament (to cite merely one example out of many) in which counterpunchers claimed the four semifinal spots.

There is a place for many playing styles on the WTA Tour. That is a great and healthy message to take away from this now-concluded tournament.

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Wozniacki Provides the Bookend to a Luminous Chapter

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

What do you do after you finally secure the prize you have been chasing your whole career?

What do you do when the cathartic triumph you constantly wondered about — would it ever come? — finally arrives?

For much of 2018, Caroline Wozniacki offered an incomplete answer to this question. In the first half of the season, in the “sunshine swing” of Indian Wells and Miami, she didn’t play close to her best… but who cared, right? She had won the Australian Open in a memorable and well-played final against Simona Halep. She deserved a pass from every commentator. The need to make some sort of statement in the United States this past March was not acutely felt.

Then came clay and grass. Wozniacki’s results were quite respectable — she won Eastbourne on lawns, in fact — but that Eastbourne win the week before the start of Wimbledon did not facilitate supreme preparedness or create maximum freshness for The Championships. She was bounced in week one by Ekaterina Makarova, the noted sniper with a penchant for taking out top-10 players at big tournaments.

Wozniacki didn’t fall off the face of the earth, but she didn’t light it on fire. Again: So what? She had her Australian Open. She had her major. Viewed in context, her year was still an extraordinary, shimmering success… and hardcourts — always her best surface — lay ahead.

That’s when Wozniacki’s body failed to cooperate.

Leg and knee injuries hampered Denmark’s superstar throughout the summer hardcourt season. The calculus was not complicated: Wozniacki depends on movement and the consistency it fosters. If she can’t move supremely well, she can’t play supremely well. Anything she did from Canada through the U.S. Open could not be evaluated on its raw merits. Wozniacki needed time to heal. She needed to be patient in a year when — in January in Melbourne — her patience was profoundly rewarded.

How fitting, then, that after another period of waiting, Wozniacki would finally and firmly answer the question raised at the start of this piece.

What do you do after you finally secure the prize you have been chasing your whole career?

You bookend that early-season achievement in Australia with a late-season Premier Mandatory championship in Beijing, your first Premier Mandatory title in seven years.

Wozniacki did precisely that with her win over Anastasija Sevastova in the China Open final on Sunday.

Yes, the last time Wozniacki won a Mandatory trophy was in 2011 at Indian Wells. The last time Wozniacki won either a Premier Mandatory or Premier 5 event was 2011. She had won Dubai weeks before her Indian Wells conquest.

In those weeks — seven years ago — Wozniacki roared through the deserts of both the Middle East and the inland portion of Southern California, en route to two of the more satisfying championships of a career which now owns three Premier Mandatory trophies (the 2010 China Open being the other). Over the next several years, Wozniacki walked through the deserts of drought, coming close to winning signature titles a number of times but not crossing the threshold.

Recall the 2014 U.S. Open final, when Serena Williams easily brushed her aside. Recall the 2017 Miami final, when Jo Konta — then coached by Wim Fissette — caught fire. Sometimes luckless, sometimes outplayed, sometimes a little bit of both at the same time, Wozniacki kept waiting for the tournament when all the pieces would fall into place for her.

That moment finally arrived in Melbourne.

Then, after a year of fits and starts — and the injuries which held her back — Wozniacki remained patient with her body and her game.

The result: Six match wins in Beijing, 12 sets won, zero sets lost. She never even needed a tiebreaker — she was that much better than the field. She beat four players — Sevastova in the final, but also Wang Qiang, Wuhan finalist Anett Kontaveit, and rising young Czech Katerina Siniakova — who were playing extremely strong tennis when they entered their respective matches with Wozniacki.

Caroline’s brand of tennis sunshine was more luminous than each of theirs.

As a result, a year which began with a first-ever major title has been bookended by a first Premier Mandatory trophy since 2011.

If she wins the WTA Finals in Singapore to collect three hugely prestigious trophies, this year of championships for Caroline Wozniacki will become an even more remarkable journey… but that is an act of looking ahead.

After this title in Beijing, Wozniacki has so much to look back on and admire.

She deserves to enjoy the view.

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