Australian Open: Kuznetsova d. Stephens

Thursday, January 19, 2012 /by

201201060126052038815-p2@stats.comIn the bottom-line world of pro sports, we tend to judge players, especially young ones, by one thing: Whether they won or lost. Prodigies one day, talented teenagers who haven't "broken through" by age 21 are immediately called "busts." Some people are already growing impatient with Grigor Dimitrov because he's not in the Top 50, which is ridiculous.

But you'd have to be pretty heartless—and a poor judge of skill—to say that Sloane Stephens doesn't have a bright future ahead of her, despite her 7-6 (6), 7-5 loss to two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the second round. In my eyes, the 18-year-old has the highest ceiling of any young American pro, including Ryan Harrison. Her swings evoke memories of Gael Monfils—both players can hit gorgeous winners that look effortless, and have the gift of "holding" the ball on their strings before they hit it. The latter quality is a testament to great footwork, which Stephens also showed when playing defense—a necessary skill against a sniper like Kuznetsova. Stephens made the Russian hit multiple would-be winners during individual points, even if she was forced to do the same. It resulted in an entertaining, atypical WTA match, where both women traded big blows from beginning to end.

About the only thing the combatants failed to do well was serve—both were more comfortable starting the point with the return, so few leads were safe. After winning a 12-plus minute game to lead the opening set 4-2, Stephens watched her effort evaporate in about 60 seconds when Kuznetsova promptly broke back. Stephens had opportunities to control both sets, but Kuznetsova was better in the tiebreaker in the first, and the teenager couldn't take advantage of her opponent's serving struggles in the second. Confounding as always, Kuznetsova made up for some dreadful net play and patches of errors with some of the best groundstrokes I've seen this tournament.

We'll see some more of those Svetlana specials when she takes on Sabine Lisicki in round three. As for Stephens, we'll see her shots again soon—they're too good not to be featured in main draws. Notice that I didn't say "the later rounds of Slams," or something to that effect. Stephens has that kind of potential, but let's not raise expectations to uncontrollable levels. Do I think she can contend for titles? Yes. But it still might take a while. Based on what I saw today, I'm willing to wait.

—Ed McGrogan

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