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Sloane Stephens summer spotlight

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

From time to time, there comes a match a tennis player simply HAS to win. One can debate this topic to no end, but I would like to think we can agree that some matches are more important than others. Let it be said that Saturday’s third-round match at Wimbledon versus Johanna Konta is more important than other 2019 matches Sloane Stephens will play.

It’s a BIG DEAL.

Maybe the notion that she “HAS to win” is oversold, but let’s not pretend this is just another match. It isn’t. It’s huge.

I don’t think I need to spend a lot of time on the matter. I do want to underscore the main point, however.

Sloane Stephens is not unique among WTA players. In fact, she is more a part of the pattern than an aberration. She can rise up and play luminous, overwhelming tennis here and there, but a steady progression through a season has avoided her.

This is the reality for most upper-tier WTA players — not all, but most.

Replicating results. Carrying results from one major tournament to the next. Being in the latter stages of many important tournaments. So many WTA players post good results in individual tournaments, a happy and very positive product of the sport’s considerable depth of quality (and quality of depth). This depth, however, has prevented top-tier players from establishing an entrenched presence at the end of big tournaments throughout whole seasons.

Consider these facts:

Naomi Osaka will enter the U.S. Open having done very little after Australia in 2019, specifically no second-week results at either Roland Garros or Wimbledon.

Two of the four Roland Garros semifinalists — Marketa Vondrousova and Amanda Anisimova — are already out of Wimbledon before the third round.

After the Serena Williams-Julia Goerges third-round match on Saturday, only two of last year’s eight Wimbledon women’s quarterfinalists will be left in the draw… and only ONE if Kiki Bertens loses her third-round match on Saturday.

WTA players are having a hard time carrying over results and replicating them with great steadiness. Karolina Pliskova and Ash Barty have been very good in this regard, but most of the top 10 has not been. Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Angelique Kerber, Osaka, and Bertens (who really struggled through Charleston) join Sloane Stephens.

Sloane reflects the norm instead of deviating from it.

Reasonable people can disagree, but many people in the tennis industry would say that Sloane Stephens has enough talent to carry results from one tournament to the next. In 2019, she hasn’t done that well without former coach Kamau Murray (who is now working with Monica Puig), so it’s not as though Wimbledon would enable her to achieve consistency.

Wimbledon is more about throwing down a big result at an important tournament AND starting a run of form she can carry through the North American hardcourt summer.

The fact that Konta — not anyone else — is her opponent in the third round magnifies this match and moment even more for Stephens.

Konta played brilliantly in knocking Sloane out of Roland Garros. Konta performed as well as she realistically could.

I hasten to say that if Konta does, somehow, play at the same high level on Saturday and beats Sloane, the American should not deserve criticism. Yet, I would bet that Konta will not max out. Not every match is played “in the zone,” the way Serena Williams normally plays against Maria Sharapova, or the way Rafael Nadal plays on Court Philippe Chatrier in Paris.

Assuming Konta is less than her very best, this is a match Sloane has to wrest away from Konta — not only to show she can punch back in this specific matchup, but to also score the kind of high-profile win which has largely been missing from her season.

True, Sloane beat Garbine Muguruza at the French Open. At the French, beating Muguruza is a high-profile result. Yet, the way Muguruza has played in 2019 places a certain limitation on that result. Beating an in-form Konta at Wimbledon would resonate more.

Sloane Stephens needs a breakout moment in 2019 and a jolt which can enable this midsection of her career to become everything it can be.

Saturday against Jo Konta would be a great time to make a statement.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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