<
>

Americans Stephens, Querrey showing they still have game

If Sloane Stephens and Sam Querrey have been looking for the right time to shed their frustrations and launch a strong run to reprise their past success, there may be no better time than the present.

Indian Wells and Miami, the back-to-back U.S. combined hard-court events, are less than two weeks out. And the WTA and ATP form charts are less clear than they have been in years.

On the women's side, Serena Williams hasn't played a competitive match since she lost the Australian Open final to Angelique Kerber. Maria Sharapova, always dangerous at the upcoming major events, has slipped to No. 7 and hasn't played either. Simona Halep and Victoria Azarenka are physically compromised. Petra Kvitova is floundering, and Kerber lost the only match she's played since her breakthrough win.

The ATP is hardly better off. Rafael Nadal continues to struggle, while Roger Federer has withdrawn from Indian Wells while he recuperates from minor knee surgery. Further, Andy Murray will be coming off paternity leave, and top-ranked Novak Djokovic had to pull out of his last tournament (Dubai) with a painful eye infection.

Stephens, who has been ranked as high as No. 11, and former No. 17 Querrey can't ask for a better opportunity than the one awaiting them in March and April.

Stephens won her second title of 2016 last week in Acapulco, and Querrey recently ran the table at Delray Beach, then backed it up with a semifinal in Acapulco. Querrey might have been speaking for Stephens as well as himself after he upset No. 2 seed Kei Nishikori early last week in Acapulco.

"Sport is kind of all about momentum; the more you win, the better you feel, and that's kind of where I'm at right now," Querrey said to the press.

It's a good place to be for the injury-plagued 28-year-old. Stephens may be in a similar sweet spot after she once again raised expectations when she kicked off the new year with a title run in Brisbane -- then promptly shattered hopes with a lethargic 6-3, 6-3 loss to Chinese qualifier Qiang Wang at the Australian Open.

Stephens raced to a 3-1 lead in that match, then lost 10 straight games -- along with her enthusiasm and focus. "I felt fine," she insisted afterward. "It just kind of got away from me."

It wasn't the first time Stephens fell into a mental fog and allowed a match to slip away. Nor has Querrey, who's also frequently described as "laid-back," been immune to flagging spirits and a comparable loss of verve. Querrey lost in the final of the grass-court ATP 250 in Nottingham last June, then failed to win consecutive matches for the rest of the year. He finished with a losing record for 2015, 20-24.

It's impossible to say just what it takes to jump-start the A-game of either of these players, but the engines seem to be running. And the success of their countrymen might prove to be a useful motivational tool -- Stephens and Querrey were not the only Americans who had a good February.

Taylor Fritz, 18, who made the semifinals in Memphis, is now the youngest player in the top 100. Tim Smyczek, Donald Young and Rajeev Ram -- a loser to Querrey in the Delray final -- also have played well in February.

Among the women, Venus Williams won in Taiwan. Coco Vandeweghe and Madison Brengle, who upset Kvitova, made the quarterfinals in Dubai. Christina McHale fought her way to the semis of Acapulco, and Shelby Rogers made the final in Rio.

Back in January, after Stephens lost in an upset at the first major of the year, she said, "I'm disappointed that I lost here, but if I play until I'm 35, I have plenty more Grand Slams to go. So I just have to look past it."

Stephens is just 23. She can afford to be flip about a loss. But as Querrey can attest, the years slip by quickly and opportunities like the ones they both have in the coming days shouldn't be wasted.