After watching Sloane Stephens stun the Australian Open field by reaching her first major semifinal, we share some thoughts about the charming 19-year-old in this early stage of her development.
She has no overwhelming weapons (yet)…: Although she stings both of her groundstrokes and her serve with more pace than she once did, Stephens rarely can take over a match with a single shot. There is no clear stroke that an opponent especially should fear and, although she reeled off several strong service holds in some spans, she also struggled to find first serves in others. Her greatest weapon still may consist of her movement, which enabled her to track down plenty of explosive lasers from Serena and Azarenka.
…but no glaring weakness: If there is nothing to especially fear, nor is there anything to especially target. Perhaps the second serve comes closest to a key flaw in this regard, but no more than it does for many players. Stephens can strike winners and produce excellent depth with either her forehand or her backhand, and her clean swings produce consistent results together with her generally crisp footwork.
She is susceptible to nerves…: Serving for the second set against Serena, the 19-year-old donated a horrific game with a crucial double fault and several routine misses from the same strokes that cleared the net with ease under less pressure. She also played an indifferent game when serving to stay in the match against Azarenka, losing her range on the last few points. The latter stumble may have stemmed in part from her decision to sit at her chair rather than move around the baseline during an opponent’s medical timeout. Stephens will learn to act differently in that situation moving forward.
…but can conquer them: No matter how injured, Serena remains a dangerous foe who can pounce on the slightest sign of an opponent’s psychological frailty. That moment appeared to arrive when Stephens failed to serve out the second set against her, and matters looked even more grim after she followed the veteran’s medical timeout with a woeful return game that evened the set at 5-5. But then the teenager righted the ship with a sturdy hold and did not let Serena escape when she served to stay in the set again. Calm fistpumps and steady focus allowed her to sweep the last three games of the match as well, rebounding from a service break midway through the third set with precocious poise.
She is vulnerable to hot hands…: Few expected Stephens to falter in the fourth round against Bojana Jovanovski, especially after her sturdy victory over fellow phenom Laura Robson. But she came within a few points of losing that match when the volatile Serb caught fire midway through the second set. Stephens looked unnerved for a long stretch by an opponent who raised her level sharply, something that she will need to handle more smoothly in the future.
…but can outlast them: On the brink of defeat against an inspired Jovanovski, and struggling to hold serve, the 19-year-old pieced together the key points that she needed to hold at 4-5, claim the decisive break, and then serve out the match relatively uneventfully. Stephens carefully took her time between points, mentally resetting herself and almost visibly curbing her frustrations. She gave nothing away with the match on the line, sensibly asking the question of her opponent whether she could continue to play so far above her usual level under extreme pressure.
No lead is safe for her…: The first player ever to defeat Serena at the Australian Open after losing the first set, Stephens squandered some significant leads of her own. She came within a point of leading Robson 4-0 in the first set, only to allow the clearly weary Brit to somehow draw level at 5-5. A round later, she utterly dominated Jovanovski through the first set, only to step back behind the baseline and give the Serb the breathing room that she needed to recover. As she matures, Stephens will become a better, more merciless closer.
…or against her: At the same time, the young American bounced back from some intimidating deficits herself. In addition to the set-and-break deficit against Serena mentioned above, she did not lose heart after dropping a long service game midway through the third set that could have proved a backbreaker. And Azarenka simply could not finish her off in the semifinal for far longer than anyone would have imagined, Stephens fighting off five match points and breaking the world #1 when she served for the match. Outclassed throughout the first set, she regrouped to turn the second into a battle so suspenseful that she rattled the defending champion’s nerve.
She can get too passive…: At times in the Robson and Jovanovski matches, Stephens looked content to rally safely from behind the baseline and keep the points in neutral mode until the opponent committed an error. That strategy earned mixed results, something that her coach and she likely will discuss after the tournament. Young players with her level of fitness, consistency, and balance often fall into this trap, especially when they are considered superior to opponents.
…but often not at key moments: Needing to save a pivotal break point against Serena, Stephens reared back and cracked a running forehand off the baseline that froze the legendary champion. As the second set with Azarenka hung in the balance, she swung freely and did not hesitate to step inside the court to finish points despite the world #1’s excellent range and passing shots. That attitude displayed the confidence that she has accumulated not just this fortnight but over last season, in which she built the foundations of her current rise into the top 20.
As Stephens hones her game under the guidance of coach David Nainkin, she likely will develop her serve into a greater weapon and refine her sense of point construction. For now, American fans should welcome her enthusiastically as a sign that far greater hope exists for the future of tennis in this nation that might have seemed possible a few years ago. Much remains in the story of her rise, but sometimes champions rise where none expects them.