The Stars and Stripes in 2013: Sloane Stephens
Mike Holder continues his look at how some of the most notable Americans on both Tours fared this season.
Sloane Stephens has been anointed the heiress apparent to Serena Williams' crown of top American woman. Early in the year, she sent a message to Williams and the world that she was on her way, but in general it was modest steps in a positive direction for the up-and-comer in 2013.
Stephens finished 2012 ranked world No. 38. Aiming her sights at 2013, she chose not to play any tournament after last year's US Open, instead choosing to rest a nagging torn abdominal muscle that had hampered her for much of the year. Despite the injury, Stephens quickly became one of the young players on the watch list entering 2013.
Now 20 years of age and apparently healthy, Stephens wasted little time in making a name for herself this season. After falling to Williams in the quarterfinals of the Brisbane International, Stephens defeated a hobbled Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in three sets. However, Stephens could not duplicate the results in the semifinals, falling routinely to then-No. 1 Victoria Azarenka. Nonetheless, she served notice that she could now compete against the best in the world. Her ranking reflected that statement, spiking to No. 17 and making her the youngest player inside the top 20.
As her attention turned to the clay courts, a combination of a recurring issue with her abdominal muscle and inconsistent play on the surface caused Stephens to struggle throughout the spring. Between February and mid-May, she failed to defeat a player inside the top 50 with the exception of a walkover against Venus Williams in Miami before to heading to the European clay.
With the season's next two majors upon her, Stephens gained some momentum by reaching the round of 16 in Roland Garros and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Nobody stopped her in London until she collided with eventual champion Marion Bartoli. Benefiting from favorable draws at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, Stephens took advantage against much lower-ranked opponents as she made her way through the brackets.
As she returned to her comfort zone on the hard courts in North America, Stephens found modest success by advancing to the round of 16 in both Toronto and the Cincinnati Masters. followed by a quarterfinal appearance at New Haven. At Cincinnati, she scored another notable win by defeating world No. 3 Maria Sharapova in the injured Russian’s last match of the season.
In New York, Stephens navigated through the early rounds with some of her best tennis of the season. Commanding victories over Urszula Radwanska and Jamie Hampton set up the match that had been anticipated since Melbourne. She would face world No. 1 Serena Williams, burning to avenge her loss at the Australian Open. This time, Stephens was no match for a Williams who was in the middle of possibly the best season of her career. She fell 6-4 6-1 to the elder American woman.
Stephens played four tournaments following the US Open to close out the year but could not advance past the quarterfinals or defeat a top-30 opponent at any of them.
When the dust settled at the finish of her uneven season, Stephens had improved her ranking to world No. 12 despite failing to win a title in 2013. In fact, the young American is still in search of her first career appearance in a WTA final. She consistently ran into road blocks when facing players at the highest level, finishing the year 2-9 against the top 10 with both victories coming against significantly injured opponents.
Stephens never was able to find consistent footing at non-major events, often playing down to the level of her competition. On the other hand, Stephens was one of only three players (joining Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska) to reach the second week at every major. Her success at the majors went a long way in fueling her rankings surge.
In an attempt to gain consistency and break down barriers which have prevented her from advancing to the next level, Stephens hired Paul Annacone as coach on a trial basis. Annacone will work with Stephens until she leaves for Australia to prepare for the first major of 2014. One of the more intriguing stories Down Under will be the impact of an established coach whose resume features both Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.
Stephens might have hoped to make more significant inroads into the Serena Williams reign, but few could have foreseen the dominating season that Williams would put together this year. Nevertheless, she can take comfort in the fact that she now sits on the verge of breaking into the top 10 at her young age. The future continues to shine for the Florida native, not far away from maximizing her potential.
After taking small steps in 2013, Stephens has positioned herself for a successful run in 2014. She surely will aim to polish her consistency and refine her strategic identity, all features that are part and parcel of advancing to the upper tier. Breaking into the top 10 and her first career title appear plausible goals for the young American next year..