With all the hubbub that circles Sloane Stephens — good and bad — a casual observer might think she’d have a few titles by now.
But she doesn’t. She hasn’t even made her way to a final on the WTA Tour or Grand Slam competition.
Tomorrow, though, is her chance. After 84 main draw appearances, she will stand at the baseline to swing away against the Citi Open’s No. 2 seeded player, Samantha Stosur, in one of two semifinals.
Stephens advanced today when she defeated American wildcard Louisa Chirico 6-4, 6-4.
“I was playing some good tennis today,“ Stephens began. “I found a good rhythm and I’m serving pretty well, so I hope to continue to do that. Just out there having fun, playing my game.”
Stosur’s quarterfinal was a different story. Her opponent Monica Niculescu retired with a left abdominal injury while trailing 4-0 in the first set.
“You never wish anything bad on your opponent,” Stosur said. “It seemed like straight away something wasn’t right with her when she hit a serve. But, I’m not going to complain about being in the next round and having an easy day.”
Stosur and Stephens admit their seasons have gone well, and “better than last year,” in the case of Stephens. Certainly their upward swings can be explained, in part, by their reunions with former coaches: Stosur with David Taylor and Stephens with Nick Saviano.
Stosur parted ways with Taylor in August, 2013, right before the US Open. They had worked together for six years and began when Stosur was on the mend from Lyme disease. During their stint, Stosur was her most successful — she won the U.S. Open in 2011 by defeating Serena Williams, cracked the world’s top 10 and challenged in the late stages of major tournaments.
By April, this year, he was back in the picture.
“We started working again in Madrid. It seemed like an easy transition right from the first week we had practicing before Madrid. It was as if we’d been on court just the week before,” Stosur said.
Trust and belief are the glue that binds them.
“I think we both just understand each other,” she added. “I know what he thinks my game is capable of, and what I can do and I trust and believe in what he says to make that all happen. Trust is a big thing in the coaching relationship.”
Today’s quarterfinal was Stosur’s 10th consecutive match win. She is currently ranked No. 21, a couple spots higher than at the end of 2014. She had spent three years in the Top 10, achieving a career-high ranking of No. 6 in 2010 and 2011.
Positive results for the Aussie showed up first in Strasbourg, right before Roland Garros. She defeated Kristina Mladenovic to win the title. Her grass court season wasn’t as bright, though. She lost to CoCo Vandeweghe in the third round at Wimbledon, in a dismal thrashing from the big-serving American, 6-2, 6-0.
“Even if you’re not having great results, you still follow the path that makes you successful,” Stosur went on to say. “So it’s easy to get back on the court after a hard loss and look at what I’ve been doing right and keep going. That’s always been there [between us].”
Instead of taking a break after Wimbledon, Stosur played two clay court events: Bastad, Sweden; and Bad Gastein in Austria, which she won for her eighth career title.
“We’ve had some highs and lows during the time we’ve spent together, but that’s always been there,” she added. “Once you’ve got that then you can build on results.”
Stephens decision to return to Nick Saviano, her original coach as a junior, has settled well with the 23-year-old. The coaching merry-go-round took a few extra spins, compared with Stosur’s path.
First Stephens hired Paul Annacone in December 2013 for a partnership that lasted eight months. Then after Eugenie Bouchard and Saviano parted ways in January, Stephens hired him back.
“I think since I was 11 years old Nick has believed in me,” Stephens began. “That’s been very crucial to our relationship because even when I was down and out, when I thought I was the worse tennis player ever, he was in my corner saying I could be one of the best tennis players in the world.”
It looked like that, too, for a time.
Stephens has three wins over Top 10 players — Serena Williams, 2013 Australian Open; Maria Sharapova, 2013 Cincinnati, and Carla Suarez Navarro, 2015 Eastbourne. Although she has never been ranked No. 1 in the world — or even in the Top 10 herself — she is one of two players to have defeated both Williams sisters in Grand Slam competition.
The other woman to accomplish that is Citi Open’s No. 1 seed, and third semifinalist, Ekaterina Makarova. She and countrywoman Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova will face off in the other semifinal after both advanced with marathon victories over Irina-Camelia Begu and Christina McHale, respectively.
“Having that kind of support consistently — he’s never turned his back on me or not encouraged me in my tennis career — it’s been one of the most solid and consistent relationships I’ve had,” Stephens said.
Stephens semifinal will be her second here in the nation’s capital since 2012. For Stosur, it will be her first semifinal at the Citi Open.
“I’m just going to have to play my best. Well, hopefully play my best. But just get out there and compete,” Stephens said, in her ever-present laid back manner.
Stephens cracked three forehand winners in the last game today, sending ripples through Grandstand 1. The roar on match point demonstrated fans’ appreciation of her tennis abilities and athleticism. If she brings that sort of tennis tomorrow, one thing is for sure: it’ll be a battle of forehands with a bit of a tip of the hat to Stosur on serving, and in the head-to-head.
Stosur won their last match in Strasbourg on red clay and their only other match the French Open in 2012. Stephens, however, believes she’ll have an advantage that won’t come from inside the court’s white lines.
“Obviously it’s a different atmosphere,” Stephens said. “We’re on hard court now. We’re in the U.S., now.”