Those were two impressive victories for Stephens, a slumping player who has seldom done full justice to her talent. Kerber, of course, has concluded the past three years among the top ten players in the world of womens tennis. She is a formidable left-hander, crafty and creative, wily and persistent. Kuznetsova has celebrated what may well be a Hall of Fame career, capturing both the 2004 U.S. Open and the 2009 French Open titles. At 29, Kuznetsova is clearly past her prime, but she remains a front line competitor. Stephens needed a couple of victories over players of that caliber to restore her self-conviction after too many recent disappointments.
Stephens enjoyed a spectacular season in 2013, finishing that campaign at No. 12 in the world. Her unswervingly high standards at all four majors that year were a testament to her credentials as a player who was unwilling to shy away from significant occasions. Stephens upended Serena Williams to reach the penultimate round of the Australian Open. She reached the fourth round of the French Open, made it to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, and then bowed out in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open against a finely tuned Williams. Those remarkable results led many of us to believe that Stephens was ready to mount a serious challenge for a place in the top ten, or perhaps even secure a spot in the top five.
And yet, Stephens endured a largely abysmal year in 2014. She fell by the end of last year to No. 37 in the world after securing wins in only 21 of 40 matches across the season. At the four majors in 2014, Stephens twice reached the round of 16 but was not the same player who had flourished so much at the 2013 Grand Slam championships. In fairness to Stephens, she appeared in only one tournament after the U.S. Open last year because of a bothersome wrist.
Her form at the outset of 2015 was even more distressing to her large legion of boosters. In her first four tournaments of the year, Stephens won only two of six matches, and she fell in the first round of her last two events leading up to Indian Wells. That was why those triumphs over Kerber and Kuznetsova were so important to this young and gifted American. She at last revealed the verve and shotmaking sparkle that had been missing for so long. She was fueled by the California crowds who unabashedly cheered almost every move she made.
But Stephens fully understood that becoming complacent on the heels of just a few good wins would be a big mistake for her. She needed to at least give Serena Williams a run for her money today, to prove that she belonged as a performer who could well start climbing again toward the top ten, to rediscover who she is and what she could again become. To say that her duel with Serena at Indian Wells this afternoon was a pivotal, career defining moment would be hyperbolic, butthe way I looked at itthe match was a crucial opportunity for Stephens to compete against the greatest player in the game and not leave the arena disappointed by her performance.
I dont believe she will be disconcerted by the showing she made against Williams. Stephens lost the match 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-2, but essentially acquitted herself well. Stephens came out of the blocks firing away with controlled aggression off the forehand, building her points without disobeying the percentages, and taking advantage of an out of sorts and somewhat listless Williams. Stephens broke Serena at 30 in the opening game as the No. 1 seed could not find her range. Williams made a cluster of unforced errors in that game. Stephens held confidently at 15 for 2-0 as Williams was guilty of more unprovoked mistakes off both flanks. Williams commenced the third game with consecutive double faults for 0-30, and was broken at love.
Stephens gave very little away over the course of those first three games, sweeping 12 of 15 points, hitting hard down the middle of the court, outhitting Serena when the two players went forehand to forehand in the crosscourt exchanges. Stephens had a nice cushion with a two service break lead, but Williams quickly chipped away at that lead. The favorite broke Stephens at 30 in the fourth game by settling down off the ground and meticulously picking apart her opponent. Williams then held at love for 2-3. The following game was critical for both players. Stephens had two game points to expand her lead to 4-2 but was denied those chances by superb depth off the ground from Williams, who broke back gamely for 3-3.
Williams remained in slight disarray despite her surge back to 3-3. In the seventh game, she served three double faults, but saved two break points with unstoppable first serves and held on for 4-3. Stephens held on for 4-4 but Serena stormed to 5-4 by holding commandingly at 15, releasing two aces in that game, putting all five first serves in play. Improbably, despite starting the match in such style, Stephens served to stay in the set. At 4-5, she was down set point, but Williams allowed Stephens a reprieve by sloppily sending a forehand down the line wide. Under the circumstances, it was an inexplicable error, but Stephens was relieved to be allowed out of an uncomfortable corner. She held for 5-5. Both players held to set up a tie-break. Considering how far she had come to get there, Williams seemed to have the advantage in that sequence.
But that was not the case at all. From 3-2 in the tie-break, Stephens was virtually unshakable. She captured four of the next five points to win it seven points to three. The younger American looked more like the veteran with her control and accuracy off the ground while Williams lost her range and rhythm. Stephens had a one set lead, and Williams had yet to approach the ceiling of her talent.
In the opening game of the second set, Stephens was up 40-15. But she played a poor point, and then double faulted twice. Down break point, she rallied for deuce but eventually Stephens lost that game after serving a third double fault followed by a backhand down the line error. That lapse was extremely expensive, because Williams served magnificently all through that second set, winning 16 of 18 points on her delivery. The 33-year-old also gained an insurance break in the seventh game. The set went to the No. 1 seed, 6-2. It was one set all.
The opening game of the final set was particularly important for Stephens, who needed to regroup and reassemble her game. She led 30-15 but lost the next three points on unjustifiable mistakes from the back of the court. Williams had the immediate break for 1-0 in the third, and never looked back. Serena was pushed twice to deuce in the second game but she held for 2-0 with discipline and determination. At 2-1, Williams was extended to deuce but she moved to 3-1 after serving a 125 MPH ace down the T. Stephens kept herself in the battle, but on the big points Serena was too resolute and implacable. At 3-2, with the score locked at deuce, Williams served an ace out wide. She quickly collected the next point to establish a 4-2 lead.
Stephens was largely spent. In the seventh game, she was broken again, and now Williams was serving for the match with two breaks in hand. The worlds best woman server produced an ace for 15-15 before double faulting on the following point. She then released a service winner and an ace to reach match point. It was soon over. Williams did not lost her serve after dropping the first two games on her delivery. She served 14 aces and won 81% of her first serve points.
Irrefutably, Williams raised her game considerably across the last two sets, winning deservedly, exploiting her experience, maintaining her composure when things were going so badly in the early stages of the first set. As for Stephens, she must be applauded for winning the first set and competing earnestly all through the encounter. All in all, she had a first rate tournament at Indian Wells. She came into this tournament ranked No. 42 in the world. A year ago, she reached the quarters, so her ranking will probably dip slightly.
The fact remains that she seems to be on the upswing. Stephens will turn 22 on Friday, and her best tennis is surely yet to come. The hope here is that she keeps working diligently with her excellent coach Nick Saviano to iron out the few wrinkles in her game. There is no reason why she should not reemerge in a very big way later this season, and the feeling grows that the Sloane Stephens of 2015 will be strikingly reminiscent of the player she was two years ago.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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