The Opening Act
When Sloane Stephens burst onto the scene a few years ago, she was immediately put under the immense pressure of expectation. Many pegged her as Serena William’s heir apparent. It was a bit unfair to the rising star at the time. It is tough comparing grand slam winners to Serena Williams, let alone a young gifted player trying to find her way on the WTA tour. Stephens – all credit to her – did her best to live up to the expectations and the intense scrutiny. At one point she hired Paul Annacone in a bid to transform herself from a solid WTA competitor to a genuine grand slam threat. Safe to say, it has been a long road for the American. With Serena Williams currently preoccupied with the best job in the world – being a mom – and the women’s field virtually decimated by far hungrier players, Sloane Stephens may yet be the heir apparent.
She certainly didn’t look like it at certain stretches of her match against Sevastova. This one was a scrap from start to finish. I have not seen much of Sevastova. Yet her game appears to be based on a shifting mix of power and feel. She enjoys turning baseline rallies into cat and mouse affairs and she never hits a shot her opponent is comfortable returning. Stephens did immensely well to keep shifting her feet and making the little adjustments needed to deal with Sevastova’s ever changing pace and depth of shot. In fact, Sevastova reminds me of Roberta Vinci. Both players love to use the slice, even though they play with two hands on the backhand side. They are both frustrating players and they enjoy making their opponents miss time and time again. Sloane definitely committed her fair share of errors. Yet she never looked like a player ready to pack it in and give Sevastova the win. By the third set, this scrappy affair had the courtside spectators at the edge of their seats cheering Sloane on as she fought her way level and forced a tiebreak.
It was a seesaw affair from start to finish but Sloane did something today, that she hasn’t done much of in her career. She found a way to win when not playing her best. She buckled down in the final set tiebreak and finished the stronger of the two players. For all Sevastova’s cunning, Sloane Stephens wanted this one more. Let’s hope she savors this feeling and remembers it going forward as it will only serve her well. Though it feels like she’s been on tour forever, she’s still only 24 and has time to win multiple majors.
The Grand Finale
Night session at the U.S Open. There’s absolutely nothing like this. Venus Williams vs Petra Kvitova. Put this one down as a strong contender for match of the year. The eternal Venus Williams has continued her defiant march against time at this year’s U.S open. In my Open Preview of Venus Williams, I stated that she was my dark horse to win the tournament. She has played like the woman to beat, and she started last night’s match playing sublime tennis against a somewhat subdued Kvitova. Even though she ran away with the first set 6 – 3, the crowd seemed to sense a response coming from Kvitova. It did. She upped her game and soon the stadium was filled with cries of Pojd – Kvitova’s battle cry. What a battle this was.
Once Kvitova gets going, it is near impossible to stop her. In the second set, Venus played great but it wasn’t good enough. She had the best seat in the house to some sterling winners from her opponent. Kvitova took the second set, 6-3. With each player producing their best in subsequent sets, there could be only one fitting way to decide this contest. In the third set, the tennis world was treated to high octane tennis at its very best. Both of these marvelous athletes zipped across the court like Gazelles, while exchanging thunderbolts between each other. It was a marvel to behold. Kvitova broke early – the third game – in the set, but Venus had her teeth sunk in this match. By the fifth game, she had broken back. A tiebreak was inevitable and that’s when Venus hit a gear that Kvitova just couldn’t match. Still, the crowd waited with bated breath as their adorable champion closed out the match after a micro blip, 7 – 2 in the tiebreak.
Is Venus Williams the most inspirational player of all time? It is a question worth posing. When you consider that she’s battled Sjogren’s syndrome for years with all its negative effects, a harrowing automobile accident this year and that she is 37 playing a very physical women’s game she help usher in some two decades ago, you have to give it to her. Such a story could make the lame dare to walk. She’s into the semifinals and at this stage, no longer a dark horse, but a firm favorite. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. What Venus Williams has given the game is nothing short of a Grand Slam in itself.