A loss to Vcktoria Azarenka in the Australian Open 2013 semifinals–whereby many thought Sloane Stephens was a victim of gamesmanship–resulted in a confidence dip that Stephens struggled to overcome. Add to that an 11-month absence with a foot injury that saw her return to action at Wimbledon this year and a straight sets defeat to compatriot Alison Riske, and people were left questioning whether or not Stephens had a future in tennis.
Two quality runs to the semifinals followed. These were at Toronto and Cincinnati, eventually succumbing to an in-form Caroline Wozniacki and troubled soul Simona Halep, respectively. Yes, you could say that the curse of the semifinal haunts Stephens. She strung together some great performance. Stephens plays with a newfound abandon, making this an incredible comeback. She seems to playing with a tremendous self-belief–a quality always needed when playing industrious Slovak, Dominica Cibulkova.
Stephens unsettles Cibulkova early on
It’s a shame these two players had to meet in only the 2nd round. However, it makes for a great spectacle. Stephens crafted the points better and it showed, as her potent point finishing allowed the American to cruise to the first set 6-2. Opening up 13 break points bears out her superiority, but she still needs to work on that ruthless streak needed to put opponents away, at the earliest opportunity–she only converted two of them. A great start though and anticipation built.
Stephens starts to make it look too easy
Moving around the court as nimbly as a deer, Stephens used power and precision to carve out a surely unassailable 4-1 lead in the second. It was Cibulkova she is playing though, and the Slovak does not know when or if she is beat. The doubts and lack of belief that have haunted this undoubtedly talented America since the Azarenka defeat result in unforced errors, deliberate serving, and poor shot choice. You give Cibulkova that kind of opening and she’ll take it; something she did with her usual grit to level the match, taking the second set 7-5.
Cibulkova starts to smell blood early in the 3rd set
A break of serve in the first game quieted the home crowd, but Stephens has spirit and she immediately pushed Cibulkova back to make it 1-1. The same pattern follows for 2-2 and you could help but be impressed by the American’s new found vigor. Cibulkova’s unforced error count crept up, and the American raced ahead to break serve for a 4-2 lead.
You just know that this will spring Cibulkova into life, and it does. Three break-back points are saved by Stephens and the crowd are already planning a visit back to Flushing Meadows for a potential Sharapova quarterfinal. Stephens is up for that too as she takes a 5-2 lead, forcing Cibulkova to serve to stay in the US Open 2017. The Slovak does this, a little nervously, but does it all the same. Stephens then assuredly closed out the set 6-3 and with it, the match.
The Comeback that Keeps on Giving
It continues to be a pleasure to witness the resurgence of Sloane Stephens and given the nature of the opponent and home tournament pressure, Stephens is coping well. It’s a wide open tournament this year–a deep run from Stephens is just what the home crowd needs. They could well get it this tournament based on this evidence.