Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Sloane Stephens is that good
By Howard Bryant
One major down, the rest of the season awaits. Looking forward, the Australian Open provided numerous signposts along the roadway toward Indian Wells and Miami and the clay season. For me, a couple of billboards stood out:
After her heady takedown of the injured -- yet plenty formidable -- Serena Williams, the question is, "ready for what?" She may not be ready yet to be favored to win a Slam, but that doesn't mean she's not ready to win one.
No, thinking highly of Stephens isn't hyperbole. Nor is it getting carried away with her terrific run. Considering Stephens as dangerous material now is merely the byproduct of two very important factors: The first is that, yes, she's that good. The second is that the field really isn't so much better than her current game right now.
In a very short time, Stephens has become the player you don't want to play. She began the Australian Open ranked 29th and is now down to 17th. She beat Williams because Serena hurt her ankle in her first match Down Under and then her back against Stephens. But it was also because Stephens made Williams nervous with her easy power on the forehand, her athleticism defensively and ability to return balls that Williams would normally hit for winners.
Stephens frustrated Williams defensively, making the 15-time Grand Slam champion hit harder and faster and less comfortably. The result was a more erratic Williams. Serena was hurt, but Stephens drove her to make mistakes. For the first time in years, Serena looked across the net and saw a player who could deal with her power far more easily than the rest.
Stephens may not be in the Williams-Sharapova-Victoria Azarenka category, but even now, though she starts slowly and struggles when she's ahead in games (she had 10 game points against Azarenka in the first set of their Aussie Open encounter and served to even the second at 5-5 before being broken to lose the match), she can compete with anyone else in the field.
2. A next stage for Roger
There is a fundamental difference between being written off and realizing that the day is coming when Roger Federer will no longer be a professional tennis player. The latter is still quite a way off, but there is a sunset quality to Federer that is nothing short of elegiac.
Federer is still ranked second, still eerily immune to letdown, still the beautiful shot-maker and still at his forceful, velvety best when challenged by the next generation. (His regal dismissal of cocky, rising Bernard Tomic in Melbourne was a prime example.) But Federer's five-set loss to Andy Murray in the semifinal underscored some obvious truths that are both painful and, in some ways, invigorating.
In the semifinal, Murray dominated Federer. He was the stronger player, the steadier player, the one who controlled who won and who lost -- or so it looked. What Murray didn't do, however, was dominate the score. Federer played with a lionish pride that robbed Murray of comfort, kept him believing that yes, there was a possibility that for all Murray was doing cosmetically, the great Federer could still win the match, could still beat him in a major. The invigorating moments drizzled throughout the match illustrated the sharklike intensity that lies so near to his elegance.
Still, it was clear that against Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, Federer will spend the rest of his days (when not on grass) an underdog against both. Watching Federer in Melbourne explains why he has scaled back the number of tournaments he will play, why he will play Indian Wells but not Miami and why he won't play Monte Carlo but said yes to Madrid. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga neared him before succumbing in a five-set quarter, and consecutive five-setters appeared to affect him. Federer is smartly hoarding his miles.
There is a beauty to watching this edition of Federer, seemingly vulnerable, viciously competitive, the fighter inside carrying the legend even more than his talent.
3. Trick or treat?
Is it time to call Tsonga the Tony Romo of the ATP? Tsonga, like Romo, puts up big numbers, can never be completely overlooked because of his ability and yet -- and yet -- will always find a way to break hearts with the crucial error at the worst possible time. Just when it seems that Tsonga has finally broken through, he (like Romo) will be the one wondering and explaining why things didn't seem to work out for him. Perhaps worse, like Romo, Tsonga suffers from that terrible malady Federer has thoroughly overcome: the ability to avoid bad losses (see: Tsonga versus Martin Klizan, 2012 U.S. Open).
Tsonga was close to Federer in the Melbourne quarterfinal, sending the match to five sets before succumbing. The question for Tsonga in 2013 is whether he possesses a marathoner's kick and can pass, reach and defeat Federer. Tsonga has a new coach, lost some weight and has confidence in fighting Federer hard. But still Romolike, he did not record a single win against a top-10 player, the damning stat of the year for any player. He and Federer may see each other in several days as both have agreed to play Rotterdam.
And so, the question remains as to whether Tsonga will have belief and momentum and move closer to beating the top players, or whether the Melbourne quarters were just an inspired, one-night tease and Tsonga falls back again.