When Sloane Stephens burst through the door of the WTA Tour in 2013 she became a darling of American women’s tennis. Bright, bubbly, athletically gifted, and well spoken, the American sports media embraced her as the next coming of Tracy Austin. With a game mixed with power, defensive prowess, and an ability to perform well on the big stage, many saw her as the next American slam champion. However, over the past two seasons, Sloane’s ability to handle both the expectations of herself and American tennis fans has lead to a very public struggle to find the sort of success she had in 2013.
Many expected new coach Nick Saviano to bring a calming presence to Stephens’ game and training in 2015. A well known coach on the tour, who was credited with much of Eugenie Bouchard’s game development, tennis pundits expected immediate positive results from his presence in her game. There have been signs of these improvements. After a uninspiring end to the 2014 season, Stephens is finding her chances and playing well enough to make deep runs in tournaments. Stephens reached the 4th Round of Indian Wells before a 3 set loss to Serena Williams; she then reached the quarters of Miami before another tough 3 set loss, this time to Simona Halep, and just this week Stephens reached the semis of Stuttgart where she lost yet another 3 setter to the always tough, and equally unpredictable, Sam Stosur. In these deep runs into tourneys, she demonstrated the shot making, power, and defensive skills that lead so many people to tout her as a future champion.
However, during and in between these positive efforts, there are tourneys, and even matches that she has won, where the confident, powerful, effortless mover disappears. There are matches like her semifinal loss in Stasbourg. After dominating a second set with crisp forehand and backhand winners, the compliant, passive Stephens reappeared in the 3rd set. By merely rolling the ball into the court, Stosur was able to dominate the 3rd set and hand Stephens a bagel in the process, not allowing her to win one game. Stephens’ nerves seem to demonstrate themselves in tight, high profile moments; the results are often sets, matches where she has an unwillingness to hit through the ball, thus neutralizing one of her biggest assets–her ability to hit winners from anywhere on the court. After playing Serena so closely at Miami, Stephens game disappeared against her in Madrid; once again resulting in a straight set loss, including yet another bagel in which Stephens struggled to win two points back to back. Madrid provided one of the most memorable on court coaching moments of the last three seasons as Megan Moulton-Levy (her coach for the week) came to Stephens, knelt down below her, stared fiercely into Stephens’ eyes and implored her to, “Let the beast out. It’s in there. Let her out.” A sentiment that’s been echoed by so many tennis commentators and American tennis fans alike– a desire to see Stephens let go and consistently play freely and confidently, allowing here instinctual court prowess and power to take precedent over the doubts and voices in her mind.
Stephens enters the French Open off a good result, capped off by a poor final set. Like so much of her young career, for every positive and good action, there has been a questionable reaction. Stephens has a high profile, difficult first round match with Venus Williams on Monday in the first round. It will be interesting to see which version of Stephens appears for the match that will be closely followed and scrutinized by both amateur and professional tennis commentators alike. The promise in her game has and is still very evident; will the ability to push through her doubts be evident is the question?
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Main Photo: INDIAN WELLS, CA – MARCH 10: Sloane Stephens follows through on a forehand to Ana Ivanovic of Serbia during the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 10, 2014 in Indian Wells, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)