WATCH—Jon Wertheim talk with Sloane Stephens after her first-round win at the 2019 Australian Open:
MELBOURNE—That notion about the pivotal seventh game played out in a topsy-turvy manner in fifth-seeded Sloane Stephens’ 6-4, 6-2 first-round win over 93rd-ranked Taylor Townsend.
In the first set, Townsend served at 3-all, love-40. A net-rushing lefthander, as close stylistically as any contemporary player comes to my Tennis Channel colleague, Martina Navratilova, Townsend had begun the match boldly. She won the first eight points to serve at 2-love. Though Townsend had immediately been broken back, surrendering her serve at 30 with a sloppy missed backhand volley, it was intriguing to witness her inquisitive manner.
“She mixes it up a lot,” said Stephens. “She can do a lot of different things most girls don’t do . . . and you’re like, ‘What’s happening?’ So I think that’s what makes her so dangerous is she does a lot of different things so well. I knew from the first point I was going to have to expect a lot of different things.”
Back to that seventh game. Stephens held three break points—precisely the stage when one expects to see the higher-ranked player pull away. Instead, Townsend fought back and held to go up 4-3. With the temperature north of 90 degrees on Margaret Court Arena, the stage appeared set for a lively tussle between a beleaguered favorite and an attacking underdog. Added spice was that Stephens hadn’t won a match Down Under since 2014 and that Townsend surely felt comfortable at a venue where she’d won the juniors back in 2012.
A year ago in the first round, Stephens had watched a 6-2, 5-4 lead evaporate versus Zhang Shuai, in the end losing that match 6-2 in the third. It had been Stephens’ eighth straight loss since her 2017 US Open title run.
“Tennis is definitely a roller coaster,” Stephens said immediately after that defeat. “But I have learned to just not panic. It will be okay. There’s always going to be times when it’s really tough and there will be times when you’re on an extreme high. I think for me now it’s not that great, but it’s nothing to panic about, guys.”
Stephens was spot on. Propelled by a victory in Miami and a runner-up run at Roland Garros, by July she’d reached a career-high ranking of number three in the world. Currently ranked fifth, Stephens is one of 11 women who could end up leaving Melbourne number one in the world.
Mid-match, of course, those gaudy results mean nothing. Townsend’s game plan of relentless serve and volley had paid early dividends. All told, she would come to net 44 times. Hopefully, in more than one corner of the globe, a coach, a player and maybe even a parent took note.
But as Townsend struggled to execute that wise plan—she only won half of those approaches—the more telling factor was Stephens’ preternatural poise. If not exactly cool in the manner of Chris Evert (who is?), Stephens throughout her career has often demonstrated a superb aptitude for that useful competitive skill of selective amnesia.
“Asked her thoughts on the sluggish start, Stephen said, “Yeah, I was, like, Here we go again. Get it together.
“Yeah, it’s just—that’s happened to me before, so I wasn’t too panicked.”
Scarcely troubled, Stephens at her best boils down tennis’ complexity to its essentials. Take it in. React. Strike. Choose appropriately, be it with depth or, when necessary, crackling pace. Most of all, Stephens’ extraordinary balance, posture and movement persistently keep her in command of the court. Imagine, if you will, Martina Hingis, armed with a bigger forehand and better serve.
Stephens held at 15 to level the set at 4-all. Then, the cord snapped for Townsend. At 4-4, 30-all, she struck a forehand wide and at break point netted the kind of shot a net-rushing lefty should never miss—a benign backhand volley. From there, Stephens was off. An easy hold at 15 closed out the 28-minute first set.
The second set was a formality, Stephens rapidly taking a double-break lead to go up 3-0. Townsend had her moments—breaking Stephens at 3-0, fighting back from 1-5, love-40 to hold serve—but was unable to strike her volleys crisply and accurately enough to truly trouble Stephens. Seven minutes past an hour, she’d made her way to the second round for the first time in five years.
“It’s been a tough couple of years here,” said Stephens, “but I do love this tournament. It’s always tough the first slam of the year kind of getting going.”
WATCH—Mary Carillo on Sloane Stephens, whose Australian Open history belies her limitless potential on hard courts:
Another twist in Stephens’ 2019 Australian Open is her sabbatical from coach Kamau Murray, the man who’d been with her for those sparkling efforts in places like New York, Miami and Roland Garros.
Though here in Melbourne with Sly Black, Stephens said, “Coaching situation is the same. Everyone is still around. Like I said, Kamau and I needed a break, we are in a great space. I surrounded myself with people here that I have known for a long time that I’m comfortable with. I wanted to be happy and hopefully that would allow me to play better. So, yeah, the coaching situation is exactly the same as it was before. You just don’t see Kamau physically here.”
Six years ago, Stephens made a major statement here when she beat Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, losing in the semis to eventual champion Victoria Azarenka. But as Stephens reflected on a pleasing first-round win, she was also aware of what she’d once done inside Rod Laver Arena six long years ago.
“I had a good result here once before,” she said, “so I think I’m going to try to do it again. Obviously it’s a work in progress, but just happy to get through that first match.”
Be it past, present or future, on or off the court, Stephens’ exquisite balance should continue to take her far.
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