Tuesday, August 28, 2012

US 2.0 - Sloane Stephens: The Future is Now?

Somewhere, "Future Sloane" is smiling, remembering the time that "Current Sloane," circa August 28, 2012, finally found a way to not let one slip away.

Such snatching-defeat-from-the-claws-of-victory moments have been a nagging issue for 19-year old Sloane Stephens throughout 2012. The American recently rose to a career-high rank of #44, but she and everyone who's been following her results this season know that she could be ranked far higher than that, if not for her inability avoid having her nerves intrude in matches that seem to be hers for the taking, usually against players ranked far higher than herself. Her problems with closing out victories has given her a series of hard-earned lessons about life on the WTA tour, but it's also robbed her of experiences that could have pushed her career to "the next level" far quicker than her many promising Bannerette counterparts, who have also been attempting to hurry-up their own professional development.

Maybe those experiences finally started to pay dividends on Night 2 at this year's U.S. Open, though.

Facing off with #22-seed Francesca Schiavone in windy conditions at Louis Armstrong Stadium, Stephens found herself in a familiar position -- leading the match, but with enough rope left around her lead for her to still get strangled in it. In the 1st set, Stephens served at 5-3. If her bad '12 pattern was to continue, she'd be broken, and then end up losing the set 7-5. But she actually held to take the set. She grabbed a 1-0 lead with a break to start the 2nd set, then held for 2-0.

Then things got sticky. Again.

Schiavone's break in game #4 tied things up at 2-2, then Stephens failed to convert a break point that would have given her a 3-2 advantage. As ESPN2's Chris Evert said during the match, which looked to be experiencing a momentum shift in the Italian vet's favor, the match was still Stephens' to win or lose. But with her recent past, which it would be was an open question. With the match getting tight, so did Stephens. Her feet weren't moving as well, her shoulders were starting to slump, and more of her shots were flying long. Schiavone held for 3-2, and the slide appeared to be on. Stephens averted it with a hold for 3-3, then Schiavone broke herself with a double-fault on break point to conclude a love game for the American. Feeling the moment in a good way, for once, Stephens threw in a big serve to hold for 5-3.

But she wasn't out of the woods yet.

After walking right up to the edge of the match's conclusion on Schiavone's serve, Stephens failed to convert two match points and saw the Italian hold for 5-4. Perhaps with the entire match hanging in the balance (and a potential love 3rd set in her future should she fail to secure a straight sets win), Stephens fell down love/30 on serve. But then her previous experiences -- and maybe the silent voice of "Future Sloane," too? -- told her to keep calm. She battled back in the game, hitting an ace to get to 30/30. A miss on a backhand passing shot past a net-charging Schiavone made Stephens face a break point, but when Schiavone sprayed a big return attempt long Stephens saw the light pointing her to the end of this match. When Schiavone's error ended a rally one point later, Stephens had her third match point. Finally, "Current Sloane" made "Future Sloane" proud, firing a forehand winner up the line to end the struggle before things turned ugly, winning 6-3/6-4.

A year after reaching the 3rd Round in New York, Stephens has advanced to the 2nd. One more win and she might face off with Ana Ivanovic in a quarter of the women's draw that lost its highest-ranked player (the #8 seed, see below) tonight. AnaIvo is the same player who ended Stephens' Open run last summer. Assuming the rematch takes place, will Stephens have learned enough to not allow history to repeat itself?

Only "Future Sloane" knows.

(Hopefully, giving her all these mentions will get me on her "good" side.)

...one more note on Stephens. ESPN2's John McEnroe called her "the next American superstar" tonight. Hmmm, didn't someone around HERE say something like that a little while back? Who was that anyway?

I mean, come on. If it comes trues, I want to at least share SOME of the credit for calling it.

...on the heels of her retirement in New Haven with a knee injury, ending her run of four straight titles at Yale, Caroline Wozniacki slipped further down the hole that has become her 2012 season on Night 2. After reaching the Open final in '09, and being the #1 seed in 2010 and '11, the #8-seeded Wozniacki was taken out in rather routine fashion in the 1st Round by Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu, 6-2/6-2. Perhaps bedeviled as much (or more) mentally by her injury-related lack of movement as she was physically, Wozniacki was a shell of her normally scrambling self. It was really never much of a contest.

This is the second straight slam in which the Dane has exited in the 1st Round. If Marion Bartoli wins her 2nd Round match on Day 3, Wozniacki will fall out of the Top 10 in the September 10 rankings. It would end her run of consecutive weeks in the Top 10 at 173, the longest active streak on tour. Victoria Azarenka would then become the longest-running Top 10er, at 102 weeks at the end of the U.S. Open, with Maria Sharapova second with 76.

...in other bad news, Agnes Szavay's time in the U.S. main draw (her first at a slam since Roland Garros last season, and only her second in the past two years) was cut short when she retired in the 2nd set against Hungarian countrywoman Greta Arn. Now ranked #1166, Szavay was once one of the tour's rising young stars (she was voted "Most Impressive Newcomer" in '07), but her career has been taken down, body part by body part, by injuries the last couple of years.

In 2007, Szavay was a quarterfinalist at the U.S. Open, and she reached the 4th Round at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2008-09. In her breakout '07 season, she made a big splash at about this time of the year, reaching the final in New Haven. Unfortunately, in what would be a prophetic moment, she was forced to retire from her match against Svetlana Kuznetsova with a back injury while leading the Russian on the scoreboard. Last season, Szavay played only nine matches, one of which she lost by retirement, and she was forced to withdraw mid-tournament at another event due to injury. She's 0-4 this season, though she did at least get healthy enough to represent Hungary in the Olympics.

The way things are going, it might turn out to be the last highlight of her career.

...all melons in NYC are hereby warned. Agnieszka Radwanska played her first match at this U.S. Open on Tuesday, defeating Nina Bratchikova 6-1/6-1, ending things with an ace on match point. Not far away in the draw, A-Rad's sister Urszula was defeated by Roberta Vinci, 6-1/6-1.

Of some note, the sisters' dad, after being absent on tour for most of the year, is apparently back in town to watch his daughters compete. Aga's real rise began last summer after dropping her father as coach following a nasty public dispute between the two. I'm not sayin' nothing... but I'm just sayin'.

...Venus Wiliiams, save for one slow-motion wince, showed no signs of the back issues that deep-sixed her efforts in the Cincinnati semifinals. After falling down a break early in the 1st set, she took out Bethanie Mattek-Sands 6-3/6-1 and, after having to spin in serves in during her last match against Li Na, she managed to notch a 124-mph serve during the match.

Serena Williams handled Coco Vandeweghe in Night 2's concluding match on Ashe court, downing her fellow Stanford finalist a bit easier than she did earlier in the summer. Serena won 6-1/6-1.

Jelena Jankovic had an easy day, too. Imagine that. She defeated Kateryna Bondarenko 6-1/6-2, keeping alive the potential for a 3rd Round meeting with Agnieszka Radwanska.

...with the 1st Round complete, it's time for a few stats:

The nation with the most players in the 2nd Round is -- shocker! -- Russia, with eight. Both the Czech Republic and Spain are tied with the U.S. for second most with five. While five Bannerettes are still alive, some of the young players who've made names for themselves at Flushing Meadows in recent seasons -- such as Melanie Oudin, Irina Falconi & Christina McHale, the latter of which who lost the final match to finish on Tuesday night -- aren't amongst the survivors.

The Romanians, with upsets of the likes of Wozniacki and Sabine Lisicki, are 4-2. In a nod to past glories, both Belgium and Serbia were a collective 6-0 in the 1st Round; while the veteran power of the Italians (which was already down a woman when Flushing Meadows heroine Flavia Pennetta pulled out of the tournament last week) is starting to wane. Only two Italians are still alive in singles -- doubles partners Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci.

Meanwhile, Nine qualifiers have reached the 2nd Round, and two wild cards are still alive:

*QUALIFIERS w/ 1st Round Wins*
Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino, ESP
Kirsten Flipkens, BEL
Edina Gallovits-Hall, ROU
Johanna Konta, GBR
Tatjana Malek, GER
Kristyna Pliskova, CZE
Olga Puchkova, RUS
Anastasia Rodionova, AUS
Magdalena Rybarikova, SVK
*WILD CARDS w/ 1st Roudn Wins*
Mallory Burdette, USA
Kristina Mladenovic, FRA

The highest-ranked German, Angelique Kerber, managed to get a 6-2/6-0 win today over Anne Keothavong, but she was the only woman of the top five highest-ranked players from her country to find a way into the 2nd Round. After Sabine Lisicki, Julia Goerges and Andrea Petkovic lost on Day 1, Mona Barthel fell on Day 2. German qualifier Tatjana Malek is Kerber's only countrywoman to advance with her to the Final 64. Although they got slight competition in the form of Ukraine's 0-3 mark, the Germans take the "Nation of Poor Souls" award for this Open with quite bit of room to spare.


Venus' "garden dress" today, with its multi-colored palette, vaguely reminiscent of a Japanese watercolor painting. (I'm practicing for my guest judge turn on "Project Runway.")

-- Hannah Storm... yes, THAT Hannah Storm, as ESPN2 cut away tonight from Novak Djokovic's destruction of his opponent (he lost two games in three sets) to interview Sloane Stephens on set. After the typical "Current Sloane" Q&A, Storm told her, "You're the most entertaining thing we've seen on our air in recent minutes." It actually made me laugh. Hannah Storm. I think I'd better get a check-up.


Sloane Stephens constantly talking about her friendship with Serena Williams. After you hear it enough times, it starts to sound practiced and "name-droppy." Even if it isn't. ADD-ON "DISLIKE": Interviewers constantly asking Sloane Stephens about her friendship with Serena Williams. Please stop.

...??????? FROM DAY 2:

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, on set with Ian Eagles and Jim Courier on Tennis Channel, being coerced into showing the stitched-up, ugly-looking wound on his right knee from his recent "run-in" with a fire hydrant while he was out jogging two weeks ago.

...and, finally, the time has almost come. The next post will include the unveiling of the all-time Backspin "MVP." Will it be Justine or Kim? Or, Kim or Justine?

(I know, I know. I'll be glad to get it all over with, too.)

WI: Great Britain (0-6 1st Rd.)
WI: Australia (1-3 1st Rd., Stosur & Dokic losses)
US: Czech Republic (2-5 1st Rd., Kvitova loses)
AO: Great Britain (0-4 1st Rd.; all on Day 1)
RG: Romania (1-5 in 1st Rd.; Cadantu double-bageled)
WI: Slovak Republic (1-3 in 1st Rd.; all 3 w/ WTA titles lost)
US: Germany (four of nation's five highest-ranked players out in 1st)

[Monthly/Quarterly winners]
JAN: Kaia Kanepi, EST
FEB: Angelique Kerber, GER
MAR: Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
APR: Angelique Kerber, GER
MAY: Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA
JUN: Tamira Paszek, AUT
JUL: Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
AUG: Angelique Kerber, GER
[2012 Weekly "Riser" Wins]
6...Angelique Kerber, GER
5...Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
4...Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
4...Kaia Kanepi, EST
4...Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA
3...Alize Cornet, FRA
3...Sara Errani, ITA
3...Julia Goerges, GER
3...Petra Kvitova, CZE
3...Sabine Lisicki, GER
3...Lucie Safarova, CZE
3...Elena Vesnina, RUS
3...Yanina Wickmayer, BEL
3...Aleksandra Wozniak, CAN

[through 1st Rd.]
5-3...Czech Republic
5-11...United States
2-1...Slovak Republic
2-2...Great Britain
0-2 = CRO,ISR
0-3 = UKR

TOP QUALIFIER: #1q Magdalena Rybarikova, SVK
TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: (WC) Krista Hardebeck/USA def. Tamaryn Hendler/BEL 7-6(9)/5-7/7-6(3)
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx
FIRST WINNER: Anna Tatishvili/GEO (def. Foretz-Gacon/FRA)
FIRST SEED OUT: #27 Anabel Medina-Garrigues/ESP (lost to Hradecka/CZE)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Germany (four of five highest-ranked Germans fell in 1st Round)
CRASH & BURN: Nominee: #8 Wozniacki/Den (lost 1st Rd. to Begu, after Open #1 seed in 2010-11; second straight 1st Rd. slam loss)
IT: xx

All for Day 2. More tomorrow, after an MVP is crowned.


Blogger Diane said...

Stephens isn't doing any favors for Serena by sounding like the product of a really second-rate P.R. firm. Stephens has somewhat tamed her cliche-spewing enthusiasm (I know longer have to avoid reading anything she's written), but it will be a while before she's mature enough to handle these types of public appearances.

On the plus side, she can be really funny, and she has an undeniable charm.

Wed Aug 29, 10:20:00 AM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

sometimes i find caro's reply too casual and too easy to the media and to herself.

“Obviously definitely the Grand Slams this year hasn't been great,” said Wozniacki. “ You know, after the year's finished you can evaluate you can see what was good and wasn't so good, yeah, work from there.

“I still have plenty of years in me,” she added.

i hope caro's knee will recover, but this year seems over really for her. no point playing like she plays now, need to change with urgency, she really doesn't have time to stick around. of all the previous no. 1 without a slam, all of them had the game but not the mind (some made it eventually like mauresmo and kim who turned that around), but caro has the mind but not the game. most worrying though is that her words convey her attitude and i feel that she is too stubborn to change.

obviously i opt for the extreme type of vika, in one of the interview when she lost, she said 'i am going to kill myself.' just so blunt and so rude and so true to her mind, that she only wants to win. haha. by the way, i like vika's outfit (though i stil prefer the shorts), but this yellow is loud and shocking, just like her. :)

Wed Aug 29, 02:25:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Diane -

Apparently, Stephens' face is all over the grounds in ads, so I suppose "it has begun."

"Stephens isn't doing any favors for Serena by sounding like the product of a really second-rate P.R. firm."

A perfect way to say it.

Jo -

Yeah, I'm going to give Caro a break after THIS Open. She probably shouldn't have played, but she wanted to at least try. I'll respect her for that.

And the hoodie and earphones are back, too! (And that's good news for anyone who likes their Vika unfiltered, and still salty.)

Wed Aug 29, 02:35:00 PM EDT  

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