You might have thought that a match that pitted the most famous rising American tennis player, Sloane Stephens, against the defending champion, Agniezska Radwanska, would have been worthy of top billing at the Sony Open in Miami today. Instead, it was pushed onto the second court at Crandon Park, the Grandstand, and into a fairly obscure mid-afternoon time slot.
Whatever the reason for that decision, Stephens didn’t seem fazed by how quiet it was out in the Crandon boonies to start. She played her best tennis while people were still filing in. Hopefully everyone got a look, because for a few minutes she made beating the world No. 4 look easy. Stephens overpowered Radwanska with her forehand, her first serve, and even her high-kicking second serve, and she out-rallied her from the backhand side. As for Aga, she was in a nose-wrinkling, foot-stamping bad mood; even when she got good looks at shots, she made uncharacteristic errors. She double-faulted to be broken at 3-3, doubled two more times at 3-5, and had trouble putting a ball in the court with Stephens serving for the set at 5-4. Sloane has been struggling since her semifinal run at the Australian Open, but this looked like the player we had come to know and like so well in Melbourne.
Despite the strong play, Stephens called out her coach, David Nainkin, at the end of the first set. He told her to hit crosscourt and stay in rallies, and to keep doing what she was doing. Sound advice, but did it make Sloane think too much and go away from her instinctive A-game, an A-game that was working so well? It’s possible: Stephens went down 0-3 to start the second set. She did rally for 2-3—maybe she had time to forget what her coach told her. But when Radwanska broke for 4-2, the match was essentially over. Stephens wouldn’t win another game, she would lose 17 straight points during one stretch, and she would spend much of the third set in a funk, mock-clapping her own misses.
As Stephens reverted to her worst tendencies, Radwanska reverted to her best. At 2-3 in the second, she changed the pattern of the rallies by stepping forward and hitting her returns more aggressively. She stopped letting Stephens’s kick serve get up on her, and started directing the rallies the way only she can—with slice forehands (she hit six in one rally), with surprising angles, with better court positioning, and with defensive circus shots, including an over-the-head lob that left Stephens muttering. Aga's winner count rose, her error count vanished. She even won with her unsung but improved first serve. At 4-0 in the third, Radwanska snuffed out any chance of a Stephens rally with a service winner at break point, and closed it out a few minutes later, 4-6, 6-2, 6-0.
Chalk it up as another learning experience for Stephens. She still backs up on her backhand, still has trouble finding a way out of a cold streak, and still gets down on herself. She lost a series of love games in the middle of the third set that barely felt contested. On the upside, she can still hit the ball past even the best defensive tennis players in tennis, and that's still what matters in the long run.
Chalk it up as another bit of wizardry from the little magician, Radwanska. She moves on to play Kirsten Flipkens next.