What a difference a year makes.
In 2014, Sloane Stephens was ranked No. 13 in the world, seeded at the Australian Open and knocking on the door of the Top 10. This year, already eliminated in the first round, Stephens is ranked No. 32 and hasn’t show any indication that she’s ready to pull that ranking back up.
The refrains are constant:
“She has all the tools.” “She needs to keep it together mentally.” “Does she want it?”
However, there are some things about Stephens and her tennis that few talk about. While she has undeniable athletic potential, there are quite a few technical flaws in her game which are ultimately holding her back.
Where to begin?
1. Her forehand is too large
Yes, Stephens can hit the cover off the ball with her forehand.
But, one of the reasons why she is able to generate such a large amount of power is because her back swing is so gigantic. She takes the racket up and back well behind her body. If you compare her forehand to Roger Federer’s or Petra Kvitova’s, you’ll notice the racket never goes to the other side of their body, and instead stays on the same side where they will be hitting the ball.
Timing is a critical part of the game, and Stephens’ large back swing makes timing extremely difficult. Opponents can quickly challenge her by hitting hard and flat to her forehand side, forcing her to whip the racket around and rush her follow-through. Someone like Federer can handle pace to his forehand because of the compact nature of his swing.
2. She pulls the ball far too much off her forehand side
Stephens’ would be wise to watch Serena Williams’ forehand in slow motion. Once the top seed gets her racket beneath the level of the ball, Williams never stops swinging up from low to high.
By contrast, Stephens pulls her racket from right to left and finishes near her pocket as opposed to over her shoulder. This deprives her of any type of extension, and makes it infinitely more likely that she will pull the ball into the net, especially when pinned behind the baseline.
Given that Stephens plays with a pretty extreme grip – one which requires her to drive up the back of the ball more than an eastern grip – swinging right to left in a windshield type of motion is highly disadvantageous. Other players exhibit the windshield-wiper type of motion on the forehand, but it is far less pronounced and comes as a natural part of the low to high motion.
3. Poor racket head preparation
Stephens tends to find herself far too deep behind the baseline; this is because she doesn’t prepare the racket head nearly as early as she should. Her forehand swing is already enormous (See No. 1), which means she is going to need more time to get around to the ball.
But not starting her racket and body turn earlier makes matters even worse. It causes her to play off the back foot with her body weight moving backwards. For someone who loves to give the ball a ride, standing far behind the baseline can only damage your cause.
4. Not enough racket speed on her second serve
Having re-watched Stephens’ 2013 Australian Open semifinal match with Victoria Azarenka as part of my research, it was blatantly obvious that she decelerates through so many of her second serves. This leaves them short in the box and sitting up for opponents to blast which, of course, Azarenka did. It reminds me a lot of what Andy Murray does on his second serve.
Not all hope is lost, however. Stephens’ service motion is close to perfect as far as I’m concerned, so if there is anything that should be easy for her to fix in her game, it would probably be this.
5. How can she get to net?
Let’s review: Stephens plays way too far behind the baseline, takes swings that are way too big and hits too many shots from an open stance.
Most of the offensive damage she does is off the forehand side, and she seems unwilling to approach the net from a neutral stance – which would make things a lot easier. In her defense, her extreme forehand grip essentially mandates that she hit from an open or semi-open stance – but it’s not an impossible task for her to make that adjustment.
6. Return of serve
Off the forehand side, her extreme grip forces her to chip a lot of forehand returns back into play because there’s no chance of her hitting a backhand return of serve if she’s waiting with her grip. This is a tough fix but still worth noting.
At the end of the day, if you can’t execute the necessary strokes and shots, mental stability becomes ancillary.