Indian Wells Dispatch: Stephens v. Bouchard

Potential is a tricky business — just ask Sloane Stephens and Genie Bouchard. It doesn’t take much to move from being the next big thing to becoming what could have been. In recent years, few young players on the WTA tour have generated the type of excitement that Sloane Stephens and Genie Bouchard did with their breakout seasons in 2013 and 2014, respectively. But, as soon as the tennis world cast each as the heiress of the WTA throne, the momentum suddenly left, and each has been left to gather up momentum under the spotlight.

Neither Stephens nor Bouchard ever fit the ingenue mold particularly well. Stephens raised eyebrows with her candor about the “freeze” she experienced from Serena Williams following her upset win over Serena at the 2013 Australian Open, among other topics, while Bouchard made waves by refusing to shake hands with an opponent during the traditional Federation Cup pre-match festivities, and her unwillingness to act like anything other than the fierce competitor that she is. While the world seemed ready to cast each of them as ladies-in-waiting to the established royalty of the tour, neither Bouchard nor Stephens was prepared to wait her turn.

Bouchard, in particular, has always seemed impatient to claim her spot at the top of the game. After her impressive breakout season in 2014, last year was an exercise in patience. First, there was the slump — where she lost 15 out of 17 matches. Then, as she appeared to be turning it around with some impressive wins at the US Open last year, she fell in a freak accident, and suffered a concussion that effectively shut down her season. Her opponent in the next match she would have played in the US Open? Roberta Vinci. It’s hard not to wonder what Bouchard would have done with that opportunity.

As for Stephens, her own post-breakout slump was far less dramatic, but no less difficult for her to manage. Despite her superior movement, and all court game, Stephens had not been able to string together the wins to make much of an impact prior to 2016.

Needless to say, winning today’s match would be a significant psychological victory for the winner — as any win over a quality opponent can be. For much of the first set, the momentum shifted between the two — both striking the ball cleanly, and moving well. Bouchard, in particular, had real “pop” on her shots, which were struck with a resounding thwack that wasn’t matched by Stephens all that frequently. Yet, with her deft volleying and mobility, Stephens hung with Bouchard through multiple breaks of serve of both players in the first set. When Bouchard pulled out the set 7-5, no one would have been surprised to see Stephens fight back hard in the second.

And she did — until she didn’t. After staving off the aggression of an increasingly confident Bouchard for most of the second set, Stephens got herself to set point five times at 5-4 in the second set, but hit some ugly errors at the most inopportune time. Bouchard continued to fight, and, with the assistance of a lucky net cord, the Canadian held serve to 5-all, and closed out the match minutes later, 7-5 in the second set. While Bouchard’s determination was impressive, Stephens will have a lot to think about following her collapse at the end of the set. That said, with two titles already this year, Stephens has plenty to be happy about these days.

Today’s win shows that Bouchard is continuing to move in the right direction. Already the WTA match win leader in 2016, Bouchard is starting to display the swagger that impressed so many in her breakout year of 2014. While she remains impatient to reach the top of the game, her trials in 2015 have given her the perspective to enjoy the ride.