Sloane Stephens needs a big season


In our lust to add importance to these high-sporting dramas, it is easy to conflate real urgency and perceived urgency. Being down a set and 5-1 in a match is real urgency. It would be fatal to lose another game.

Starting off the year right is an urgency far more perceived. It would be good to gain positive momentum, but the world will not collapse if matters don't immediately fall the right way.

Momentum is not insignificant, especially in the head game of tennis, the game where the spiral -- either upward or downward -- can come the sharpest. On the women's side of the sport, three players stand out as needing a strong Australian Open to start their year positively.

1. Sloane Stephens: She is on the cusp of the top 10, at No. 13. She beat Serena Williams at the Aussie last year. She might have upset Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals had it not been for her inexperience and Azarenka's childish gamesmanship ("I can't breathe"). Later in the summer, Stephens beat Maria Sharapova in Cincinnati. Stephens will turn 21 in March. There would seem to be nothing urgent about a star obviously on the rise.

Except that for all the talk of the emergence of Stephens, for all the Under Armor sponsorships, the massive forehand, the big-game results at Grand Slam events, the huge, marketable smile, the youth and the upside, Sloane Stephens has yet to win a single WTA tournament. She hasn't even reached a final. Simona Halep, whom Stephens demolished 6-1, 6-1 in the first round at Melbourne last year, won six tournaments in 2013 alone.

Stephens is so gifted that the game seems to come easily to her, almost too easily. She can play at 60 percent of her abilities and barely strategize at all and be a top-15 player for the next 10 years. She's that good.

She isn't, however, good enough to beat elite players and win tournaments just by showing up. The win over the injured Serena in Melbourne was defining, but seven times she was knocked out of a tournament in the first or second round, losing to Olga Puchkova in Washington and Klara Zakapalova in Doha. Stephens is young but is the highest-ranked player on tour to never win a title.

Stephens is an athlete with massive weapons yet plays a curiously passive baseline game in which she waits to unleash a forehand instead of attacking her opponent with footwork and variety as well as power. She's quick enough to come to the net but rarely does. She's fast enough to set up sharper angles for her groundstrokes but seems content to bash forehands from the center of the baseline, a strategy that has largely failed against players who hit the ball as hard as she does (Sharapova and Williams) or players who are more consistent from the ground who wait out her errors ( Agnieszka Radwanska).

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