Sloane Stephens was one of the breakout stars of 2013, but this season proved to be something of a sophomore slump. TTI takes a closer look at one of the most enigmatic players on the WTA Tour.
A year ago, we thought Sloane Stephens had arrived.
After a solid 2012, the young American upset Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Global media and the WTA alike hailed the birth of a new star in women’s tennis. Despite her loss to Victoria Azarenka in the next round, Stephens went on to perform consistently at all four slams that season; she lost to the eventual champion on each occasion. Finishing 2013 at a career high ranking of of No. 12, the 21 year-old even made it to the WTA Championships in Istanbul, albeit as a second alternate. Many believed the door was wide open for Stephens to solidify her role as a major player in 2014.
The leaves changed, and autumn came.
The WTA continued its expansion into Asia with the new Premier 5 tournament in Wuhan and a successful first edition of the rebranded WTA Finals in Singapore. Simona Halep and Eugenie Bouchard cemented themselves as relevant names, each coming within one match of winning these two events.
One name tipped for success 12 months ago was noticeably absent.
After a first round loss to Silvia Soler-Espinosa in Guangzhou, Stephens shut down her season after just one match in Asia, citing a wrist injury. The American had a forgettable second half and her ranking tumbled down to No. 36, her lowest position since January 2013.
Making Sense of Stephens
It was that victory over one of the all-time greats in tennis in Melbourne that effectively kick-started Stephens’ career. It was the match the showed a Sloane Stephens who cared.
Her “rivalry” with Williams began in early 2013, and soon proved to be a narrative that would permeate through the season. Stephens would struggle after her breakout success Down Under, and won just six matches until the French Open. Beyond her on-court issues, Stephens dabbled in dealing with increased media attention. In one ESPNw story, she was all too happy to dish on how she felt about the world No. 1, she who “made her,” more than she claims she was really aware of. After all, she and the reporter who wrote the piece were just having pizza.
Beyond this story, a lot was made of Stephens’ seemingly blasé reactions to losses and the hollow answers given in press conferences. The American tended to reply to most questions along the lines of, “one loss being no big deal,” and often “whatevered” her way through more probing lines from the media having to do with her subpar performances in non-slam events.
But for all the warning signs in 2013, the major tournaments showed Stephens’ raw power and athleticism, how she relished the big stage. Although a WTA title proved elusive many, including Chris Evert, thought 2014 would see Stephens’ career take a big leap forward.
The warning signs quickly began to outweigh the positives as the American rarely posted consistent results on tour. Her performance against Caroline Wozniacki in Miami and subsequent 1st round losses drew renewed criticism of her on-court efforts and emotional investment, or lack thereof.
And yet, Stephens’ first half of 2014 wasn’t unfamiliar. Yes, she struggled at smaller events. But she continued to rise from the dead at each major tournament – until her run of relatively soft draws stopped at Wimbledon, when she drew crafty Maria Kirilenko in the first round. After the loss, Stephens gave another press conference full of “whatever.”
Stephens suddenly found herself in stark contrast to another fast-rising North American in Eugenie Bouchard. The Canadian broke through in similar fashion, but where the Wimbledon finalist is ruthlessly ambitious and takes the new-found attention in stride, Stephens’ easy-going attitude often gives the impression that of everyone, she’s the least perturbed by her inconsistencies. This gulf in attitude and mindset became glaringly obvious in South Carolina this spring, when Bouchard and Stephens were both interviewed during Charleston’s All Access Hour.
Stephens worked with Paul Annacone throughout the first half of 2014 but their collaboration ended after Wimbledon. Since then, the American has worked with Thomas Högstedt but ended the Emirates Airlines US Open Series with an unimpressive 4-4 record.
In between, Stephens found herself once again “maneuvering” her way through the media, this time courtesy of an Elle profile from July. Puzzling, to say the least. The author herself doesn’t quite know how she wants to feel about the American’s general attitude, but concludes that Stephens’ bratty behavior is perhaps her way of keeping people at arms’ length and expectations low.
Interestingly enough, this is an observation that ties in with one of the more nuanced statements made by Evert after Stephens’ second round loss at US Open. She who had had high hopes for Stephens in 2014, expressed that maybe the 21-year-old is scared of committing 100% and still coming up short.
Add the “I WILL WHAT I WANT” slogan for Under Armor (which reads as far from something you’d imagine Stephens saying in a press conference as possible), and her fondness for inspirational quotes on Twitter, and the picture becomes even more complex:
Quo Vadis, Sloane?
As it stands, Stephens managed to finish 2014 with even more questions than she started. For the past two months, the American has been out of the spotlight nursing an injury, and it almost seems like a fair number of people are happy to have a break from trying to solve her seemingly unending riddle. Mentions in newspapers and reports have been sparse and weirdly enough, though Högstedt has given a few interviews, it emerged this week that he might not be on Stephens’ team for much longer. The Swede signed up to assist Simona Halep in January; there has been no comment from the American as of yet. Does he return to be Stephens’ coach if things don’t work out with the World No. 3? Unlikely.
Stephens still has a lot of untapped potential in her tennis. She’s still searching for her first WTA title. For all her athletic gifts, her footwork remains below average. While she possesses booming groundstrokes, she struggles to rein them in, and her shot selection leaves something to be desired. It would be good to see Stephens work with someone who manages to straddle the line between tough task-master – particularly when she appears “over it” at a smaller events – and trusted companion who makes sure she enjoys herself on the court. Once she finds a set-up she trusts, it’s not unlikely that she will let her guard down and we’ll get to see a different Sloane.
That might come with more losses at first – perhaps with some losses that truly hurt. But until she wills, it’s hard to see the true wants of Sloane Stephens anytime soon.