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).

A gift for the WTA would be a year or even a several-month stretch of maximum focus from Stephens, to take the WTA calendar tournaments as seriously as she does the Grand Slam events. Maybe it is merely youth, but if the day comes when Stephens finds another gear, she will be the scariest player on tour. She hired Paul Annacone, former coach of both Roger Federer and Pete Sampras for 2014, which is the clearest sign yet she may be ready for a big year.

2. Agniezska Radwanska: During the first set of her 2012 Wimbledon final against Serena Williams, Radwanska looked as though she had reached the peak of her abilities, good enough to reach a final with her masterful, eclectic game of squash shots and slices and creative lobs and defense and (for her opponents) maddening consistency, but not strong enough to step in the ring with Williams, whose power blasted through Radwanska's game and made spectators want to throw in the towel for her -- or give her a hug.

Then, in the second set, the consistency won out, frustrating Williams and forcing a third set that did not even seem possible. Radwanska lost the third set and the title, but the hope was that her game was good enough to win a major, after all. She may not hit with Sharapova, Williams, Petra Kvitova or Samantha Stosur power, but she didn't need anyone's pity, either.

Then, in 2013, the limits of Radwanska's game grew more pronounced. Injuries crept in. Radwanska is slight of build, and as the year progressed she wore enough physio-tape as to look mummified. She won big matches, reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, but was upset by the harder-hitting Sabine Lisicki -- and with it went her best chance thus far to win a major. Radwanska was challenged harder in 2013 by lower-ranked players.

Radwanska is still a force, ranked fifth. She won two titles in 2013, but after winning that second set from Williams in the 2012 Wimbledon final, she has lost five straight without taking a single set and is 0-8 lifetime. Radwanska ended 2013 losing her last four matches, getting shut out of the year-end championship at Istanbul. She is 2-8 lifetime against Sharapova and 3-13 against Azarenka, including seven straight losses. Against the top three women, Radwanska is 5-28.

Radwanska is solid. Unlike Stephens and Kvitova and some of the other women in the top 15, she wins matches, but she is in danger of entering Caroline Wozniacki/ Sara Errani territory: unable to compete with the very top players while having to expend more energy just to maintain their current place from the players beneath them in the rankings.

3. Simona Halep: After a breakout 2013 in which she went 50-16 and won six titles, Halep won't be sneaking up on anyone. For proof of life as the hunted instead of the hunter, another climber, American Madison Keys, just beat Halep in the first round at Sydney last week.

Halep played fearlessly in 2013, best evidenced by her last title of the year, when she won the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, Bulgaria. In the semifinal and final, against Ana Ivanovic and Stosur (two former Grand Slam champs), Halep lost the first set 6-2 and won the championship easily, winning the final two sets against Ivanovic 6-1, 6-3 and Stosur 6-2, 6-2.

Halep is now ranked 11th in the world, ahead of Stephens, Ivanovic and Lisicki, all of whom have been to semifinals of major tournaments. She won titles on all four surfaces -- clay in Nurnberg and Budapest, grass in Den Bosch, hard court in New Haven (easily beating another Grand Slam winner, Petra Kvitova, 6-2, 6-2) and indoor hard court at Sofia.

Now comes the tennis hard part: backing it up. She must defend those titles and make a play in the majors. Her best result in 2013 was losing to Flavia Pennetta in the fourth round at the US Open, but on the big stage, she was flat. Stephens beat her in the first round of the Australian. Carla Suarez Navarro beat her in the first round of the French Open, and Li Na beat her in the second round at Wimbledon, including a 6-0 bagel in the third set. In order to maintain the confidence she gained from 2013 and show she wasn't just another player who had a good year, Halep needs a good showing in Melbourne and a fast start to 2014, more than any other woman on tour.