A pair of Americans, Coco Gauff and Sloane Stephens, took to the courts Friday to play quarterfinal matches at the Volvo Car Open in Charleston, S.C. Neither won, but to assess where each of these two stood at the end of their latest matches triggers an assertion: Define winning.
Gauff’s early tennis education continued today, one lesson after another coming courtesy of the seasoned and versatile Ons Jabeur. Though Gauff had won their prior two matches, on this occasion, sharp court coverage, forceful consistency, and a Jabeur trademark, the adroit drop shot, helped the 26-year-old Tunisian earn a 6-3, 6-3 victory that smoothly melded business and artistry. Still, for the 17-year-old Gauff, advancing to this stage of a tournament remains quite new, Charleston only the fifth last eight appearance of her young tennis career. Recall that less than two years ago, Gauff was entered in the qualifying at Wimbledon. She arrived in Charleston ranked No. 36.
Most teenagers—including tennis prodigies—polish themselves privately. But Gauff, so successful so early, is having this process play out on international television, in front of millions. Yet as much as her youthful rawness is intermittently exposed, it’s exceeded by Gauff’s relentless optimism and sheer engagement in competition. To see Gauff conduct herself so positively is to turn a competitive axiom on its head. Results do not generate confidence. Better yet: Confidence generates results. Or even more, is confidence itself merely an illusion, the heart of the matter revolving around practice, study, competition?
One can see, week to week, match to match, sometimes even rally to rally, how hard Gauff is working to improve—everything from her forehand (weaker than the backhand), to court positioning, forward movement, the serve. Progress, though, is not a line forward, but a series of peaks, valleys and even tumbles—literally—evident today when Gauff fell on her right side. Later this evening, Gauff withdrew from the doubles, citing a right hip injury. One hopes this is only a short-term issue.
For Stephens, eleven years Gauff’s elder, being in the quarterfinals was familiar, but also a bit distant, the first time she’d been that far since Roland-Garros 2019. As if the pressures of tennis weren’t enough, the pandemic has been extraordinarily painful for Stephens.
“I had COVID, I lost three people that were very close to me. I’m in Australia and I literally had to go to my grandparents’ funeral on Zoom. I just was not ready to play,” Stephens said in an article written by tournament writer Richard Osbourne. “The pressure of contracts and the expectation of being out there and just playing, it wasn’t the right time for me. I had a lot going on.”
Ranked 57th as the tournament began, Stephens played sharp tennis to earn three victories, including one over defending Volvo Car Open winner Madison Keys and another versus the dangerous Ajla Tomljanovic. In today’s quarterfinal, Stephens was in large part overpowered by Veronika Kudermetova, the Russian repeatedly controlling the real estate of the court to earn a 6-3, 6-4 win in 93 minutes. But Stephens fought well. With Kudermetova serving in the second set at 3-0, 40-15, Stephens rallied, including saving one game point with a dazzling down-the-line backhand. Such is the Sloane Stephens mix on her best days: movement, consistency, shot-making.
Stephens won that game and stayed close enough to force Kudermetova to serve it out at 5-4. Brittle as Kudermetova became at the late stages of the second set, when it came time to close, she was flawless, easily holding at 15. No question, for Kudermetova, Charleston is shaping up as a peak. But given all Stephens has been through in recent times, losing a tennis match is hardly a valley. How well this one-time US Open champion builds off all she has learned off the court and can still bring inside the lines is currently shaping up as one of the more intriguing storylines of the 2021 tennis year.