How Sloane Stephens’ subtle athleticism brought her another big title

by: Steve Tignor | March 31, 2018

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Sloane Stephens followed up her US Open title with a championship at the MIami Open. (AP)

If you’re searching for one point that sums up Sloane Stephens’ 7-6 (5), 6-1 win over Jelena Ostapenko in the Miami Open final, look no further than the penultimate one. 

Serving at 5-1, 30-0 in the second set, two points from the title, Stephens ran down a pair of hard-hit ground strokes from her opponent. When Ostapenko hooked a forehand at a sharp crosscourt angle on the next shot, it looked like the point would finally be hers. That is, until Stephens bolted to her right, raced after the ball, and found herself with enough time to whip a topspin forehand of her own back crosscourt. Ostapenko, despite having watched Stephens make dozens of other full-stretch gets over the course of the match, was taken by surprise. Caught off guard, she could only poke her next shot into the net. 

This was Sloane showing us what makes her such a subtly effective athlete. Rather than use her natural explosiveness to take the offensive, she uses it to defuse her opponents’ attack. She’s fast enough to get to balls that few other players can get, but she also has the ability to do something with the those balls when she gets to them: to counterpunch with pace, depth and heavy spin of her own. In the point described above, Ostapenko had a wide-open court for her last shot, but Stephens robbed her of the time she needed to hit it.

Match point:

That was always going to be the crucial question in this match-up: Could Stephens make Ostapenko hit too many low-percentage shots to win? The answer in the first set was yes—barely. The match began with four straight breaks, and continued in that topsy-turvy vein for the rest of the first set. The tiebreaker, and the understated stratagems Sloane used during it, made the difference. 

Stephens hit a strong but safe forehand to make it 1-1, and a heavy, deep backhand to get to 2-1. She won the next two points with good defense to make it 4-2, came up with a little extra kick on her second serve for 5-2, and finally pulled the trigger on her forehand return to make it 6-2. Then she hung on for dear life, and watched as Ostapenko finally missed a backhand at 5-6. That’s Ostapenko’s favorite shot, but Stephens forced her to play it from well above her shoulder, rather than in her strike zone. With that epic—but hardly classic—first set out of the way, Sloane would lose just one more game.

“She plays a hard game and makes sure she goes for her shots, so I just made sure I hung in there and didn’t get too upset,” Stephens told ESPN afterward. “As long I did that, and took my opportunities when I had them.”

Championship speech:

Stephens’ confidence in her game obviously comes and goes; few players swing as quickly from peak to valley and back again. But she knows she can win finals; she’s 6-0 in them now. The best explanation for why may have come from ESPN commentator and former U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez today: “Margin really helps in moments of tension,” Fernandez said.

Where some great players use their athleticism to try to do more with the ball than their opponents, Stephens uses her to do less—or just enough. She knows she can play high and safe and down the middle, yet still run down her opponents’ higher-risk strokes, and use their pace against them when necessary. Sloane hit just six winners, but won this match in straight sets. And while she was broken five times today, Stephens’ serve still has enough pop to be a weapon. When she smacked a service winner to hold for 4-1 in the second set, the match was essentially over.

For a second straight year, Stephens has won a top-tier title virtually from nowhere. It seems that she’s at her best when she has no expectations of success and is just trying to find her way back to her normal level of play. In 2017, she won the US Open while recovering from surgery; now she has won Miami after a six-month dry spell where she struggled to win anything at all.

“I just wanted to make sure my game was where I wanted it to be,” Stephens said of her mindset coming to Miami. She admitted that she didn’t have any thoughts of winning this title, or any titles in the near future.

Can Stephens learn to win when she does have expectations of success? We’ll see. “Trust the process”—rather than worrying about the result—would seem to be the mantra for her.

Either way, in Miami Sloane showed us again that great athletes don’t have to be spectacular; they can be subtle, too.


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