By Maud Watson
It seems like only yesterday Sloane Stephens was being anointed the next “big thing” in American tennis. After an impressive run in Melbourne, she looked ready to compete with the big girls. In the three months since that run, however, she’s gone a dismal 2-5. Some of those losses have been tight – matches where she put herself in a position to win only to fall short. But more recently, she’s gone through patches where she has struggled to win games. Her latest loss in Charleston, where she won only two games against Mattek-Sands, is a prime example. It was a match that left her on the verge of tears, which frankly, was good to see. She needed an attitude adjustment after her loss in Miami where she insinuated she could ride the coattails of her Aussie Open success and brush off frequent first-round losses. Her attempt to try and keep things in perspective was admirable, but it was a faulty line of thinking. Based on her reaction in Charleston though, it seems to have hit home that even if her ranking won’t drastically suffer, for a player of her potential, strings of early-round losses are unacceptable. Hopefully playing in Europe, where she won’t be so under the microscope, will help her right the ship. It’s certainly not time to panic, but there is cause for some concern in the Stephens’ camp.
Turning the Page
Before he was even a teenager, the world was told that Richard Gasquet was destined for great things. Now in his mid-20s, things haven’t exactly panned out the way many, especially the Frenchman, would have hoped. But in 2013, we’re starting to see a different Gasquet. He has quietly put together a good start to the season. He’s already secured two titles, had a good run in Indian Wells, and played some spectacular ball against Murray before bowing out in the semis of Miami. But the biggest change we’re seeing in Gasquet was on display in that loss to Murray. Though it was clear to anyone watching that Gasquet was in pain, Gasquet competed all the way until the end. The old Gasquet would have tanked or pulled the plug. It seems his increased coaching from former pro Sebastian Grosjean is paying dividends. If he can continue to improve in consistency and the mental department, the business end of the men’s premiere events is going to get even more interesting.
Does It Matter?
For the first time in nearly a decade, neither Federer nor Nadal is ranked in the top 2. Those spots are presently occupied by Djokovic and Murray. The question is, does it really matter? On one hand, provided Nadal is able to once again take the No. 4 ranking away from Ferrer, the Big 4 will still be guaranteed of meeting one another no sooner than the semis. There’s also no getting around that Murray’s ranking rise was aided by the absence of Federer and Nadal in Miami (as well as Nadal’s lengthy layoff). But on the other hand, to write off the change in rankings as insignificant – particularly Murray’s rise to No. 2 – would be a mistake. Djokovic sits atop the mountain, and despite recent losses at Indian Wells and Miami, is still generally considered the man to beat. For his own part, Murray may have benefited from his opposition sitting out some big tournaments, but he’s also steadily become a better player than he was even twelve months ago. He earned the No. 2 ranking by virtue of his play in 2012, and his rankings rise should translate into an increased sense of self-belief. So while it would come as no shock if Federer or Nadal were to upend the two men ranked ahead of them on a big stage, from a psychological standpoint, it’s now Federer and Nadal playing from behind the eight ball, which is just the slight shakeup men’s tennis needs.
Evening the Odds
Just before the Davis Cup quarterfinals got underway, the countries of Kazakhstan and Argentina both received a boost to their chances of advancing to the semis. Kazakhstan had already caught a break going into its quarterfinal clash with the Czech Republic, as Czech No. 1 Berdych had announced earlier that he would be sitting out the tie to nurse a shoulder injury. Now Czech No. 2, Stepanek, won’t be competing in the singles on the tie’s opening day. Stepanek will be playing his first event since neck surgery and will be eased into the competition by starting in the doubles on Saturday. It is unknown whether Stepanek will play the reverse singles on Sunday if the tie still hangs in the balance, but either way, it’s a break for the host nation. Similar to Kazakhstan, Argentina is also benefiting from the withdrawal of a player from the opposing squad, though its effect isn’t as great. Gasquet was forced to forfeit his place on Team France due to the ankle injury that plagued him in March. He’s been replaced, however, by the very talented Simon. Simon hasn’t had quite the hot hand that Gasquet has enjoyed of late, but he’s no slouch and capable of playing big-time tennis anywhere, any time. In short, these ties are too close to call.
Poor Andrea Petkovic. The affable German just can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to injuries. Her litany of injuries is well documented, and after this week, you can add one more to the list. Petkovic, who was finally starting to notch some wins and was scheduled to meet fellow wildcard Wozniacki in the Round of 16 in Charleston, was forced to withdraw due to a right calf injury. Petkovic explained that the calf had been giving her trouble since Miami and indicated she may have hurt it through relying on that calf muscle too much in order to protect her troubled knee. Petkovic was upbeat despite the disappointment, stating at this stage, she’d rather take precaution than risk yet another serious and lengthy injury layoff. Smart move on her part. Hopefully she’ll recover quickly and once again be giving fans plenty to cheer in the near future.