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Toronto troubles for Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Plenty of notable names and seeded players have exited Toronto and the Rogers Cup before Wednesday. On many levels, this is just another WTA tournament, with plenty of bracket chaos and no sense of what the final will be. Yet, amid the predictable unpredictability, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys stand apart.

They stand apart in a bad way.

Yes, it is true that Sloane could turn on the jets in New York. Madison Keys could do the same. Anything IS possible on the WTA Tour these days. Tournaments big and small are playgrounds of randomness. From that randomness, Stephens and Keys could emerge victorious.

Yet, if you were to survey the WTA landscape and separate the highly-ranked players whose losses don’t seem alarming from the highly-ranked players whose losses carry more weight, wouldn’t you be inclined to say that Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys fall more in the latter camp?

Ashleigh Barty did lose on Tuesday in addition to Stephens and Keys, but Barty has risen to No. 1, bagged a major, and put together a high-quality season defined by good results on three surfaces. Her loss to Sofia Kenin was not expected, and it doesn’t reflect well on Barty, but it doesn’t carry too much baggage.

Barty has done the heavy lifting on tour through grass season. We know that in Canada, much of the two tours essentially start over, marking the very unofficial but very real start to the second half of the season. If the gears don’t turn very smoothly in Canada after a lot of tennis through July, one can give that player a pass.

On the other hand, players who have underachieved and — accordingly — underplayed in the first half need to be sharp when August arrives.

This is why Stephens’ and Keys’ losses in Toronto are definitely worse than Barty’s. This is why Maria Sharapova’s and Angelique Kerber’s losses in Toronto will sting more than losses by Jo Konta or Maria Sakkari. This is why the loss by Aryna Sabalenka is notable. Sabalenka needs to defend all these second-half points from 2018. She needed to get on a roll, and that roll was stopped on Tuesday night.

I admittedly said that one should wait until after the U.S. Open to check in on Sloane Stephens. 

However, I framed part of that piece in the context of assuming that an early loss in Washington would not necessarily mean a bad Canada-Cincinnati-New York swing. In 2017, Sloane lost her first match in Washington and then made deep runs in each of the next three tournaments.

Clearly, an early loss in D.C. did not help Sloane in Canada. Does this mean her 2019 campaign will evaporate? No… but this does mean that if Stephens loses early in Cincinnati, she will be very low on match play heading into the U.S. Open. She badly needs a round of 16 at the very least in Ohio to feel that she is adequately prepared for New York.

As for Madison Keys: If you thought it was tough for Roger Federer to not serve out Novak Djokovic at 8-7, 40-15, imagine how it must feel for Keys to not serve out Donna Vekic at 5-4, 40-0, in set three in Toronto.

Keys keeps watching matches slip through her fingers. The gnawing sense of stasis — being frozen in one reality for a prolonged period of time — is eating away at what should be prime years for her career.

No, not every match loss or tournament failure can be seen as cause to panic. We can say, however, that Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys need to get some work done in Cincinnati next week.

One can overreact to the chaos-bearing results in Toronto. Saying Sloane and Keys have to produce in Ohio doesn’t feel like an overreaction at this point.

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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