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SLOANE STEPHENS BECOMES THE LATEST NEW YORK-TO-FLORIDA IMPORT

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

As a native of Phoenix, Arizona, I can tell you that this desert city — roughly a five-hour drive from Indian Wells — is a magnet for Midwestern Americans who want to either retire or spend winter months in a sunny climate. Phoenix is a place where sports bars can often be segmented based on whether they cater to fans of teams from Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, or other Midwestern cities.

If the Midwest is the region of the United States which forms a pipeline with Arizona, the Northeastern United States forms a similar pipeline with the state of Florida. People from Boston, Philadelphia and especially New York try to carve out a place in The Sunshine State, seeking either their own winter haven or the spot to live out their golden years.

In the world of WTA tennis, it has become very clear that another New York-to-Florida transition has been pulled off.

It is not as though Sloane Stephens — had she failed to beat Victoria Azarenka in Thursday’s first Miami Open women’s semifinal — would have had an unsuccessful tournament. Stephens’ run to the semifinals made her tournament a considerable success. She had already dismantled Angelique Kerber. She had already emerged from doubts surrounding the injuries which slowed her down last fall and at the Australian Open. She had already secured a spot in the top 10 for the first time. She had already shown that what she did in New York had been backed up with significant results and steady performances. She could have walked away from Key Biscayne with a lot to be happy about. She could have been satisfied, and she would have been right to be satisfied at that level.

This is when we see what athletes are made of — not in separating the great athletes from the mediocre ones, but in identifying athletes who possess a special added measure of greatness, who not only reach for the very best, but often gain what they seek. The aspirational fire burning within the athlete is the necessary prerequisite to forging an iconic career, but the ability and moxie to fulfill the highest aspirations is the other part of the story.

Sloane Stephens — who was getting dusted by an in-form Azarenka, 6-3 and 2-0 — could have settled for a semifinal paycheck and a very encouraging run at the Miami Open. She could have inwardly allowed her mind and body to concede that this just wasn’t her day, and that it was time for Azarenka, the 2016 Miami champion, to gain the spotlight in Saturday’s final. Azarenka was confident, especially from the backhand side, in the process of winning eight of the first 11 games of the match. Stephens was losing her shots, mostly long, unable to handle variations in pace from the two-time major champion on the other side of the net. Stephens wasn’t losing to an ordinary version of Vika; this was an above-average iteration — not top form, but close enough to make the whole WTA locker room take notice with most of the 2018 season yet to be played.

Lacking precision against a hungry and confident opponent, Stephens could have relented at 6-3, 2-0.

She lost only one more game after that point.

In the second set, one could have reasonably made the argument that Azarenka’s errors in critical situations provided the fuel for the Stephens comeback. In a more expanded version of the three-game rally Stephens briefly made in the first set before allowing a run of five straight games in the other direction, Azarenka lost control of her forehand, mistiming balls in ways which caused her to hit the middle third of the net. Azarenka’s proficiency from the back of the court was pronounced in the first 11 games of the match, but even when she was winning, Vika never did inspire complete confidence at net, and in the middle of the second set, she let a number of important points slip through her fingers because she wasn’t able to cleanly knock off a volley.

Stephens sensed an opening. She didn’t merely enter the room when Vika opened the door for her; she barged through the portal and took ownership of the house known as stadium court at the Crandon Park Tennis Center.

Midway through the second set, Azarenka lost hold of the quality tennis which had put her in a winning position, but toward the end of the second set and throughout the third, this was Stephens’ match, defined by Stephens’ imprint and Stephens’ aggressive hitting.

In what had been a volatile match with abrupt and severe shifts in momentum, Stephens put an end to the volatility by never giving Azarenka a chance to mount a third-set comeback. This three-set win over an accomplished player who posed significant challenges recalled the problem-solving player who outfoxed Anastasija Sevastova and Venus Williams at the U.S. Open. This was the iteration of Stephens which has ripened into a complete player — able to hit and defend vigorously while shrugging off negative sequences and remaining airtight as a competitive force.

This is not new, but in the process of analyzing tennis matches year after year and decade after decade, the same basic truths emerge: Anyone can play great tennis for several games, but the true measure of a player is taken when she falls into a rut and watches an opponent gain the upper hand. Players have to be able to wait out opponents and eventually reverse the run of play. Major titles and Premier Mandatory trophies — once in a great while — might be won with dominant, overwhelming tennis, but the vast majority of the time, a player must flip a bad script into a feel-good ending in order to become a champion.

Sloane Stephens did this in New York. She has imported this winning formula to South Florida.

She now gets to play the last WTA final held at Crandon Park before the Miami Open switches venues next year.

Don’t think Sloane won’t be able to import her game to a new location — she has become very good at that art this fortnight in Key Biscayne.

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Image taken from zimbio.com

 

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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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