Sloane Stephens DOES step her game up at big tournaments. The 2018 WTA Finals reaffirmed that claim. Only two players can make the final of any tournament, but unlike the 2015 WTA Finals in which Agnieszka Radwanska went 1-2 in her round-robin group yet advanced to the semifinals through complicated tiebreaker math and then won the whole thing, Stephens steamed into the final in Singapore.
She went 4-0 and consistently wore down her opponents in third sets. She did so in three of her four pre-final matches this week: against Naomi Osaka in match one; Kiki Bertens in match two; and Karolina Pliskova in match four, the semifinals. Stephens was much stronger than Angelique Kerber in match three, which she won in straights. She gained a pile of points and made an even bigger pile of money. She did well. More precisely, she reinforced the reality that after several weeks of ordinary results, she can lift her level and play in championship matches of important tournaments.
Her 2018 season owns several outstanding results:
Roland Garros runner-up.
WTA Finals runner-up.
Elina Svitolina might have defeated her in Sunday’s WTA Finals title tilt, but Stephens had the better 10-month season than her Ukrainian competitor. Her season might have become even better at the U.S. Open, but Sloane joined the ranks of players (including Roger Federer and Angelique Kerber, in addition to less-known names) who were overwhelmed by the brutal weather in New York. Had Stephens been able to make the semifinals on Thursday night, when conditions had begun to become less oppressive, she might have gone all the way. As it was, a capable and crafty Anastasija Sevastova thwarted Stephens in the quarterfinals.
Sloane had to “settle” for the kind of year most players would give an arm and a leg to put on their career resumes. She played for titles in the top four tiers of women’s tennis: these year-end championships in Singapore, a major tournament, a Premier Mandatory, and a Premier 5. No one else on the WTA Tour could make that same statement. Grass was the only season which completely eluded Stephens this year. She was a factor on winter/late spring hardcourts; European clay; North American summer hardcourts; and the autumn/year-end swing. Not too shabby.
Yet, for all that Sloane did in fact achieve this season, it is clear that there is still another, higher level she can attain, or at least, another place she can aspire to reach.
If you look at the four big finals Sloane contested this season, three of them went three sets.
Sloane lost all three of them, winning the final she managed to close down in two sets against Jelena Ostapenko in Miami.
As great as Stephens is as a defensive player, and as much as she delights in counterpunching — not having to land the first big blow in a rally — it is noticeable that other players have been able to gradually change the flow of a match after Stephens, at one point, gained the upper hand.
Stephens was clearly the better player than Halep in set one at Roland Garros and set two in Montreal. She was similarly superior in set one on Sunday against Svitolina, but the Ukrainian reeled in the American and looked fresher down the stretch. This mirrored the twin losses to Halep in France and French Canada.
Stephens — in her match management and in the quality of her serves — can still get better, or at the very least, she needs to see if she is able to pull off that improvement in the coming years.
I am not going to expect Sloane to make finals of all the big tournaments on a consistent basis. The WTA Tour is simply too good and too deep to demand that of any player right now. We should accept — instead of criticize — the fact that in 2018, most of the title contenders at the top tier of the tour were great in some big tournaments and not great in others. Within this context of inconsistency, Stephens was better than most of her elite peers in terms of maximizing runs in tournaments.
Consider one comparison among many with Sloane: Garbine Muguruza, also known as a player who can be mediocre for months and then soar at a big tournament. Muguruza made one major semifinal this year, at Roland Garros. Other than her Doha final-Dubai semifinal surge in February, she didn’t go deep in important tournaments for the rest of the year except in Paris. Stephens was several notches better, and Muguruza is one of the BETTER examples of struggling and then surging to the center of the tennis conversation.
Stephens is doing quite fine in a larger context. That point needs to be underscored.
Yet, she needs to see if she can grow even more so that even if her inconsistency remains, these runner-up finishes can become championship trophies.
If she does well in 2019 along these lines, she might have Elina Svitolina to thank for affirming a very important lesson at the end of this 2018 WTA Tour season.