Sloane Stephens is the quintessential example of a tennis enigma. Supremely gifted in just about every department of the game, you would expect a player of her caliber to have more than one grand slam in the shelf by now. We have, in a sense, been spoiled by the magnificence of great players like Serena, Maria, Justine and Venus. We think racking up the slams is as easy as stepping onto a local club tennis court for a hit with friends. Players like Sloane, remind us that it is anything but easy.
Her enigmatic game stems from its unpredictability. She can go from world beating form to dreadful in a very short time frame. Early on in her career, Sloane was also caught up in the “sustained excellence” bug. The notion that anything less than a week in, week out, finals appearance is downright unacceptable for someone as gifted as she is. The notion that going through stretches of a season without a title amounts to failure. Finally, last year while coming back from injury, she figured it out. She owed no one. She only owed it to herself to go out on the courts and give her very best, that day. That’s what some of us do with our careers right?
The change of results have been dramatic. She is not Miss consistent, not by any stretch of the imagination. Sloane simply waits on her time. She slides in and out of the zone, for she knows when she is zoned in, she’s very tough to beat and magic can happen. Against Kontaveit, that’s exactly the word that played in my mind as I watched her systematically pick her opponent apart. Magic. Sloane is a master at beating her opponents not by blitzing them off the court, but by outplaying and outpacing them just enough. She never goes into overdrive unless she has to. If you think she isn’t capable of playing at a higher level, look no further than her semifinal match against Venus Williams in last year’s US Open. She didn’t need that level against Kontaveit today, and so she didn’t go there. But it did nothing to take away the brilliance with which she outwitted, outplayed, and outmaneuvered her opponent.
If there is anything such as a warning shot, this match was it. Sloane is quietly into the quarterfinals of the French Open, playing the kind of tennis that saw her win the US Open last year. Judging by the build up to the French Open for the women, none of us saw this coming.