Tennis Channel Live: Sloane Stephens' US Open title defense
NEW YORK—Playing Sloane Stephens can be a puzzling proposition.
Do you try to hit through her? If you do, you better hit the ball perfectly. Anything less and Stephens is going to run it down and do what she does best: hit an offensive shot from a defensive position.
Do you try to rally with her? Again, you better hit your targets and not let the ball land short. If you do, Stephens, unlike many counter-punchers, can move forward and create her own heavy pace on her ground strokes. In the French Open final against Stephens, Simona Halep eventually decided that her only hope was to rally and simply “not miss any balls.” It worked for her, but she’s also No. 1 in the world. It’s not going to work for everyone.
Elise Mertens is not No. 1 in the world; she’s No. 15, to be exact. But she did have success against Stephens recently, beating her in straight sets last month in Cincinnati. A Sloane fan might say that there were extenuating circumstances to that one; namely, a couple of days earlier, she had reached the final in Montreal and lost a marathon to Halep.
Photos by Anita Aguilar
More important, as far as Stephens is concerned: Cincinnati is no US Open. This is the tournament she has been pointing toward, and this is the tournament where she has shown more emotion over the course of the first week than she may have shown in the rest of her career combined. And on Sunday, this is where Stephens made herself an unsolvable riddle for Mertens.
Mertens tried to split the difference between attacking Stephens and rallying with her. She would toss up a moonball, and then drive her next stroke hard enough to catch Stephens off guard. Sloane, meanwhile, was trying to move Mertens back with her own looping shots, and move her wide with crosscourt angles. The result was a match that was the diametric opposite of this afternoon’s fourth-rounder between Serena Williams and Kaia Kanepi: that was a shootout; this was a chess match.
Neither player could sustain momentum for long. Stephens broke Mertens five times, while Mertens returned the favor twice. Each ended up with significantly more errors than winners. Mertens had early success attacking Stephens’ second serve; she hammered two winning returns off it to break for 2-3 in the first set. How did Stephens counter that play? Simple: she made 83 percent of her first serves, and gave Mertens precious few looks at second balls.
From the ground, Stephens mixed low slices with hard drives, rolling crosscourt backhands with forehands hit high, heavy and straight down the middle. Most important, Sloane’s speed forced Mertens to go for too much in her quest to end the rallies. Mertens ended up with just 12 winners against 35 unforced errors, though it could be argued that Stephens’ presence alone on the other side of the net means those errors were forced, rather than unforced.
At times in the past, Stephens has been reluctant to put herself on the line as a competitor, and that has manifested itself in a playing style that can err on the conservative side. The first week here has been different. She has allowed herself to show the crowd how much winning at the Open means to her, and the New York fans have responded to that emotion.
“It’s crazy, it’s so special,” Stephens said today. “I think an American playing at the US Open is incredible.”
According to Sloane, who is ranked a career-high No. 3 right now, she’s also motivated by the chance to become No. 1.
“There’s only two more spots to go,” she said. “That’s exciting. It’s something new. I’ve never had that type of, like, challenge before.”
“I’m excited about where my game is, about competing, about being on the court.”
That excitement, and willingness to put herself on the line, may also be translating into a more creative brand of shotmaking. On Sunday, Stephens ran back and hit a forehand pass back over her head for a crosscourt winner. Later, she won an important rally with a big forehand down the line, a curling crosscourt backhand approach, and a swing volley that she hit behind Mertens. And on her first match point, Sloane ranged forward and knocked a confident forehand inside-out for a thumping, authoritative winner.
“That’s pretty good, huh?” she asked ESPN’s Pam Shriver a few minutes later.
For Stephens, who already has the solid and steady down pat, adding the spectacular would be one more piece of an already-difficult puzzle to solve.
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