The Curious Case of Sloane Stephens

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Sloane Stephens is third at odds to win Wimbledon, according to ESPN.

Sloane Stephens is third at odds to win Wimbledon, according to ESPN.

(June 29, 2013) Twelve. That’s how many times 20-year-old American Sloane Stephens has used the phrase “play hard” in her last two press conferences at Wimbledon this week.

After her turbulent season on the WTA Tour since debuting in the top 20 for the first time in January, that’s all Stephens can focus on – playing hard.

Now through to the fourth round after a rollercoaster of a match against qualifier Petra Cetkovska, Stephens is rebuilding the confidence she lost earlier in the year.

Combined with her fourth round appearance last month at Roland Garros, which she called “pretty good … after not having that many great results over the year,” Stephens said that run helped her “build a lot of confidence.” Now, she comes into Wimbledon “feeling (even) better.”

After becoming an instant celebrity with her surprise win over an injured Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Stephens is now third at odds, according to ESPN, to win Wimbledon behind Williams and 2011 titlist Petra Kvitova. That’s a pretty tall task for a player who has never been past the fourth round of Wimbledon and has yet to even reach a Slam final.

Stephens’ main draw debut at a Slam occurred in 2011 on her favorite surface, the red clay of Roland Garros. And since then, she has gone a respectable 21-8 during her young career. Despite her rather quick ascension up the Slam ranks, she jokes about still being a relative newcomer.

“Even though I played a lot slams, I feel like it’s all new,” Stephens said on Monday. “I came (to Wimbledon) and I … didn’t even know how to get to the locker room.”

Stephens’ young career on court has been an inspiring one, but her off-court presence has quickly outshone her well-crafted style. With many seeds now out from Wimbledon, it’s another opportunity for the young American to revert attention back to her game.

At age 17, Stephens finished 2010 ranked world No. 198, followed it up with a top 100 debut just nine months later and ended the year as the youngest player in the top 100. In July of 2012, she broke into the top 50 for the first time after reaching the third round at Wimbledon, then a left abdominal injury derailed her and she missed the last four months of the season.

Then, the tournament that made her a household name occurred.

Stephens came into the 2013 Australian Open already ranked a proper 25th in the world, but many had still never seen much from the budding 20-year-old. She was carefree, energetic and youthful, and was flying under the radar as she defeated then-world No. 3 Serena Williams on her way to the semifinals.

Then came the media downfall. Clouded by her own words and misrepresentations from some members of the press, Stephens had to combat against comments that she said her and Williams being “besties” and that the elder American was a “mentor.” Though the media blew Stephens’ comments out of proportion, she did little initially to put out the fire.

Another well-timed release of a two-month old interview for ESPN just last month caused an additional stir. In the article, Stephens blasted Williams for being cold to her after her Australian Open win, and Stephens quickly commented that the statements were taken out of context and that she had already sorted it out with Williams directly.

But gone was the lovable interviewee in her post-match press conferences, and her match play during much of this time suffered as well. She again came under heavy scrutiny and she admitted that all of the media attention became too overwhelming for her.

By the first week of May, Stephens’ win-to-loss record on the season outside of the Slams had dropped to 3-6, including five opening round losses.

But looking deeper into Stephens’ results, this statistic shouldn’t be that alarming. She has, for some reason, always performed better at Slams than at WTA-level events.

In 2011, Stephens’ best results came in Carlsbad where she reached the quarterfinals, and the US Open where she reached the third round. Outside of that, she failed to even qualify for seven other WTA events, and additionally lost in the first round of a lower-ranked ITF event to a player outside of the top 400.

In 2012, Stephens reached the third round or better in three of the four Slams, but failed once again to even qualify for three WTA events, though she did reach two semifinals in lower-ranked WTA events.

In 2013 so far, Stephens has reached the fourth round of a Slam twice and the semifinal once, but outside of that, her best showing was once again the semifinal of a lower-ranked WTA event.

All things considered, Stephens has yet to appear past a WTA Premier-level quarterfinal or International-level semifinal, and has only won one ITF title in 2011, yet she is making the fourth rounds of Slams without too much difficulty.

So the question begs to be asked: Why does Stephens perform considerably better at Slams than at WTA-level events?

Well, if you’re looking to Stephens to answer the puzzle, you’ll be disappointed.

“I don’t know,” says Stephens when asked about her Slam performance consistency compared to the rest of her WTA results. “Maybe it’s the food I eat. I’m not really sure.”

Analyzing Stephens’ Slam and Premier events statistics, particularly in three-set matches, from May 2011 to present day, as well as a breakdown of the last twelve months gives some interesting insights.

  1. When winning the first set in a three-set match at Slams, Stephens has won 85.7% of the time, or 6 out of 7 matches. Compare that to Premier events during the same timeframe where she only won 28.6% of the time, or 2 out of 7 matches.
  2. In three-set matches won over the last two years, Stephens holds a record of 8-2 at Slams, and 7-8 at Premier events. Over the last twelve months, her Slam record is 7-2 and 3-7 at Premier events.
  3. Over the last twelve months, the average ranking to which she lost to in three-sets at a Slam was 14, and at Premier events was 38.
  4. Over the past twelve months, Stephens holds a 15-4 win-to-loss record in all Slam matches, compared to an 11-13 record for all Premier event matches.
  5. In all Slam losses over the past twelve months, the average ranking of her opponent was 8. Compare that to a ranking of 35 at Premier events during the same time frame.

The statistics breakdown of her matches could continue, but the conclusion is clear: Stephens, whether consciously or not, exerts more into her Slam performances to secure those three-set wins, in particular. Stephens tends to win and lose straight set matches in rather similar ratios across Slam and Premier events – it’s only the three-set matches that show any marked difference.

This week in Wimbledon, after easily getting by her first round opponent Jamie Hampton in straight sets, Stephens was tested with back-to-back three set matches against first Andrea Petkovic then Petra Cetkovska. After winning both first sets in a tiebreak, she had uncharacteristically poor middle sets (6-2 and 6-0, respectively), before bouncing back and winning both nail-biting matches in the third.

Perhaps her confidence at Slams is still somewhat wavering given her results the past few months, but she would be wise to keep that elevated focus and translate it into the other WTA events, and not just at Slams. A few bad draws at a couple of Slams or another injury, and she could see her confidence and ranking faltering. She needs to find a way to win those three-set matches which are being played on smaller stages, and build a proper foundation.

In other words, she needs to take her own advice for every event she enters, and simply “play hard.”

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