Welcome to the first installment of LiveAnalysis for the 2013 US Open! Today we have just the third meeting of the much publicized rivalry between World No. 1 Serena Williams and World No. 16 Sloane Stephens.
Click here to see how Serena has arrived to this much anticipated fourth round match, and click here to see how Sloane Stephens made it.
Click here for the H2H between these two (which is tied at 1 apiece). All meetings have taken place this year…and they’ve both been in Australia.
- Even though Serena Williams is 11 years older than Sloane Stephens, she’s only managed to lose 19 more pro matches than her younger rival throughout her career (as a reminder, the WTA counts ITF matches as well as qualies, in their match totals). To give you an idea of how remarkable that is, Sloane Stephens has lost 18 times just this year.
Three Things to Watch For:
1. Which Serena Williams will show up? Will we get the focused, ruthless, and vengeful version? Or will it be the tense, dubitative, and often flat-footed Serena? All eyes will be on her, as will the pressure. It’ll be interesting to see how the 16-time Major champ will handle it.
2. Will Sloane Stephens be able to play purposeful tennis and make Serena hit on the run consistently? This is the absolute key of the match for me – Sloane has tended to rely on her athleticism alone to win matches (a la younger Monfils, though without the crowd-pleasing antics), happy to chase balls down and simply dare her opponents to miss. I’ve always thought that this approach to matches is a waste of Stephen’s many talents and the easy power she gets off both wings. Today she needs to take the game to Serena and avoid being the one who is always reacting to the first aggressive shot of a rally. Sloane needs to find the open court, and needs to let Serena know that she won’t be able to plant herself in the middle of the baseline and direct traffic at will. Otherwise, this will be a very short match.
3. How will the crowd react to the budding rivalry? Serena has had some support at the US Open in years past, but she’s also had her share of bad memories on Ashe. Will the crowd embrace the youngster, or the established champion? And in either case, how will the “spurned” American react?
Remember to refresh this page often, as I will be providing game-by-game analysis throughout the match!
As in previous LiveAnalysis posts, I’ll be using a bit of “tennis shorthand” today. Here’s your glossary:
BP: Break Point
DTL: Down the line (means the same as “up the line”)
GP: Game Point
SP: Set Point
S&V: Serve and Volley
SW: Service Winner
UFE: Unforced Error
Andy Murray has defeated Florian Mayer, so we should be starting very, very soon.
At coin toss, Sloane elects to receive, and Serena…asks for a box of tissues. #usopen
— Steve Tignor (@SteveTignor) September 1, 2013
First Set – Serena Williams will serve first
0-0: Serena gets us underway with an Ace out wide. Two missiles later, it’s 40-0. The game ends with a Stephens return into the net.
I forgot to point out in the things to watch for that Sloane Stephens has to find ways to get into Serena’s service games. If Serena is allowed to roll on serve… bad things will happen to the 20 year-old.
1-0, Williams: We get the first rally of the match right away. Sloane seems willing to push Serena to the corners, and it pays off. But then Serena destroys a Sloane 2nd serve, so it’s 15-all. After a blistering FH winner from Sloane comes a DF, and we’re at 40-30. A nice rally ends with a Stephens BH DTL into the net, so it’s Deuce #1. Then the women trade blows for quite a while, with Sloane producing some stellar defensive play. Serena sends a FH long, and then a BH long gives the game to the youngster.
Sloane is fixated on pulling Serena wider and wider on her backhand side. Not a bad idea, since whatever plan that involves getting Serena to hit on the run is a good one. She’s mixing it up with good CC FHs, too, which helps.
1-1: Two unreturned serves, and it’s 30-0. Then we get a rally, but it ends shortly after it starts when Sloane pulls a FH DTL wide. 40-0. Sloane Stephens then wins the first point on Serena’s serve…after a Serena DF. But the miscue is immediately corrected as Serena fires an Ace up the T to seal the hold.
Tactical Update: No gameplan will work for Stephens if she’s not going to put serves back in play. Yes, she’s playing against possibly the greatest serve in women’s tennis history. But still – she needs to do better if this match is to be competitive.
@juanjo_sports Fastest player on the tour. But it does stand out more because there are so few great athletes nowadays.
— Tumaini (@tumcarayol) September 1, 2013
2-1, Williams: Two Sloane UFEs put us at 30-all. Serena then defends a BH DTL admirably, turns the tables on Sloane, and fires away a CC BH winner for her first BP of the match. Sloane saves it with a very coherent 1-2 play consisting of a nice wide serve and an inside-in FH winner. Deuce #1. Serena goes on the attack with her CC BH again, forces the error, and she’ll have a 2nd BP. Sloane saves it again with a devastating inside-out FH. Deuce #2. Serena then donates a BH UFE, so Sloane has her first chance to escape this game. Not yet, as she fails to get a little bunt over the net. Deuce #3, but GP for Sloane thanks to a great SW up the T. But a DF makes it Deuce #4. SW out wide, GP Stephens. Bad BH UFE by Sloane, so Deuce #5. 3rd DF, 2nd of the game for Sloane, and Serena has a 3rd BP. It is dutifully saved via a very good SW out wide. Deuce #6. Serena goes for a little too much with an I-O FH, and it’s GP for Sloane. A missed return by Serena finally ends this game.
Now, about that I-O FH winner that saved the 2nd BP…
Wait, was that forehand from Stephens 92mph or 102mph? Either way, bloody hell.
— Tumaini (@tumcarayol) September 1, 2013
Stats Update: Serena has lost 1 point on her serve (and it was a DF). Sloane…well, she’s lost A LOT more than that. This imbalance is never, ever a good thing for the player who has to work way more to hold serve.
2-2: It’s 30-0 after Serena easily puts away a short return. Rinse and repeat moments later and Serena holds to love.
3-2, Williams: The ladies trade UFEs, and then Sloane badly reaches for a volley to set up 15-40. Serena then blasts a CC FH return winner, and she’s got the early break!
That surprised absolutely no one.
4-2, Williams: Serena loses her first service point properly with a FH UFE. 15-all. She immediately makes amends with a brutal FH DTL. Sloane wins her 3rd point on Serena’s serve in the next rally, which ends up being somewhat long and interesting – the youngster emphatically puts away a smash. Serena then DFs, so it’s 30-40. And then, another DF, so Sloane Stephens has broken serve.
Wow, very uncharacteristic consecutive double faults by Serena gift back the break to Sloane. Back on serve at 4-3. #USOpen
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) September 1, 2013
That was inexplicable. I mean… neither of the last two serves were even close to being in. The first landed squarely in the middle of the net, and the 2nd was long by a foot at least.
Regardless, this much is clear: once the rallies start, this is a pretty even match. The problem has been that the vast majority of rallies have taken place in Stephens’ service games.
4-3, Williams: At 30-all, Sloane gets a nice look at an I-O FH…but she nets it. 30-40. The match has gotten extremely nervy. The BP is saved with some calm, composed tennis: a big serve up the T is followed by safe, damaging FHs. Deuce #1. Then Deuce #2 after Sloane can’t handle a deep Serena return. SW, and GP for Stephens. A nice body SW seals the hold.
That was obviously key – now the focus goes back to Serena, who was holding serve extremely comfortably until the last disaster of a service game.
4-4: We’re back to dominating, it seems: Serena fires an Ace out wide to make it 40-0. However, Sloane hits a gorgeous CC angled FH, and moments later she wins the moment. That was a very pretty shot. However, the 20 year-old barely misses on a deep return, and Serena has held.
Well Sloane didn't come out here to take a thrashing, so I'm impressed on that basis. Attitude is correct.
— Chris P (@scoobschris) September 1, 2013
Here come the pressure games that #Sloane couldnt handle in Brisbane earlier this year: serving at 4-5 to stay in the set vs #Serena #usopen
— Nick McCarvel (@NickMcCarvel) September 1, 2013
5-4, Williams: Sloane makes a mess of yet another forecourt ball, and it’s 0-30. Her footwork in that part of the court is simply put a disaster. Serena bails her out in the next point, as she misses a return badly. 15-30. Rinse and repeat: 30 all. However, Sloane misfires, and Serena has a SP. 2nd serve… and Sloane has saved it with two great CC BHs. The pair then exchange CC FHs, and it’s Serena’s who cracks. GP for Sloane. Serena sends a very, very short return right into Sloane’s BH…who completely overhits a BH DTL. Deuce #2. Sloane then goes for an ill-advised I-O BH (!), misses wildly, and Serena has SP #2. But Sloane survives again via her great CC FH. Clean winner makes it Deuce #3. Then Serena hits the netcord, but doesn’t get the lucky bounce. GP for Sloane. But another forecourt ball is botched, so Deuce #4. Sloane contributes another UFE, and it’s SP #3 for Serena. Sloane gets a good serve in, Serena returns it short, but Stephens sends the I-O FH well wide.
First Set to Serena Williams, 6-4.
Here are your 1st set stats:
Second Set – Serena Williams will serve first
0-0: Sloane Stephens goes up 0-30, Serena evens the game, and then fires a fantastic I-I FH winner and a loud “c’mon” to make it 40-30. However, Sloane won’t back off, and forces Deuce #1 via yet another great CC FH. Serena then can’t handle a short ball by the net, and Sloane has a BP. It’s saved via a fantastic CC FH by Serena. After Serena carves out a GP, Sloane erases it with another devastating I-O FH. Deuce #2. An Aces makes it GP, and just when it seems like Sloane will unleash another huge CC FH… she frames it. Serena “escapes.”
1-0, Williams: Sloane’s in trouble after Serena overpowers her with some awesome FHs. 15-30. Sloane then hits a flat footed short CC BH from the forecourt, and forces the error. 30-all. A great CC FH makes it 40-30. Serena misses a return, and Sloane has also “escaped.”
This is such a tense match. It feels like a derby of sorts.
1-1: Serena rolls to a 40-0 lead, and then sends a smash directly into Stephens’ body, though Sloane was standing behind her own baseline. The youngster from Plantation, Florida can’t get out of the way, and the hold is achieved in a rather strange way.
2-1, Williams: Stephens sends a blistering FH CC passing shot right by Serena, and it’s 30-15. She then misfires on a CC BH, so it’s 30-all. Sloane puts away a short FH, but then DFs, so it’s Deuce #1. Serena times a 1st serve return perfectly, and her CC FH goes for a clean winner. BP for Serena. Then the defending US Open champ gets two incredible defensive shots to land smack on the line, and Sloane ends up netting a FH. Serena has broken!
That defense from Serena…both retrievals landing right on the baseline.
— Tumaini (@tumcarayol) September 1, 2013
Super defense earns Serena third break and 3-1 second set lead. #usopen
— Douglas Robson (@dougrobson) September 1, 2013
3-1, Williams: Serena is unmoved by the appearance of more and more wind on Ashe, as she emphatically clinches a love hold with a big SW.
Sloane's double fault at 2-1 game point, and Serena's great defense after, may have closed this one. SW up 6-4, 4-1. #usopen
— Steve Tignor (@SteveTignor) September 1, 2013
4-1, Williams: Serena pulls Sloane wider and wider on the FH side, forces the error, and has 2 BPs at 15-40. Sloane goes for a YOLO CC BH, misses, and Serena will serve for the breadstick.
5-1, Williams: Sloane misses a CC FH, and it’s 30-0. SW, and Serena has 3 MPs. The first goes begging as Serena barely misses a FH. 40-15. Serena then goes for a huge 2nd serve… and fails. 40-30. But the match ends on a Sloane FH UFE.
Game, Set, and Match to Serena Williams, 6-4, 6-1.
Here are full match stats:
At the end of the day, it’s extremely difficult to win a tennis match (at any level, really), if your opponent wins almost 3 times as many return points as you do. Having to work so much harder to hold serve will take its toll eventually, and we saw that phenomenon unravel before our eyes in the second set of today’s match, as Sloane Stephens just couldn’t keep up with Serena Williams any longer.
Just out of curiosity, I looked at the stats of the pair’s first ever match, at Brisbane earlier this year. What was I looking for? Return numbers. Here’s what I found: while Serena only managed to win 37% of return points (compared to 51% today), Sloane Stephens could only muster 27% (compared to 26% today). Back then, Sloane Stephens won all of 6 points off of Serena’s 1st serve. Today she won 5.
My point is obvious: Sloane Stephens has serious issues returning Serena’s dominant serve. Naturally, we’re talking about the greatest serve in women’s tennis, but other players do a much better job handling Serena’s delivery. Moreover, I would expect someone endowed with such overwhelming athleticism to be a much better returner – she has the quickness, she has the reflexes. However, when I watched Sloane return serve today, her stance just seemed a little lazy. She doesn’t bend her knees all that much, and her steps towards the ball are quite lethargic. After watching her botch return after return, the futility actually made sense to me.
Which leads to another point about Sloane Stephens: while so much of her game seems ready to go, there are areas where the lack of development is quite glaring, namely the return of serve and most things that happen in that tricky area between the service line and the net. Sloane is a hazard to herself in the forecourt, mainly due to inexplicably bad footwork.
Sloane is a rare, rare talent. But she’s still so very green in a few key areas. With the right adjustments (and notice that I’m not even mentioning any attitude issues either) she could really go all the way in women’s tennis. But as I always think whenever I watch her play, that’s far from a certainty.
The sad thing about Sloane Stephens’ return of serve issues was that whenever the two women engaged in rallies, the product was quite appealing. Sloane made Serena play defense as only the very elite of women’s tennis can force her to. This is no small accomplishment. I thought the forehand to forehand exchanges (as well as the backhand to backhand exchanges) were superb. I even lamented the unfortunate fact that there’s such a large age gap between them: it would’ve been fun to see these two go at each other for a long period of time, with both in similar stages of their development.
As for Serena Williams, the only blemish in her performance was that 4-2 service game in the 1st set, in which she essentially broke herself out of the blue. Apart from that, Serena showed off some vintage defensive skills, and eventually got the better of the forehand exchanges, which were going Sloane’s way at the beginning of the match. Her serve was her anchor (except for that one brief game), and when she gets on a roll with that part of her game, she’s very, very hard to stop.
Up next for her is Carla Suárez Navarro, who Serena has handled quite easily in their two previous occasions (CSN has managed to win only 5 games in all four sets they’ve played, two of which have been bagels). Serena would surely smile if I could tell her that Carla managed to win all of 5 points on her 1st serve in their last match.
Just like Sloane today.
One player was getting free points with the serve almost at-will: the other was not. Seems…straightforward?
Juan, very nice write up. One thing that you failed to mention, and which I really kept my eye on was the pace and speed of the serve. Sloane was hitting her serves at 117/119 and most of her first serves were over 100 mph. Serena on the other hand was throwing in serves at an average speed of 107. It was in the latter stages of the match that she brought out the big guns, i.e. the 120 mphs. That being said, I think Serena’s serves were just accurately placed. In addition Serena’s court sense really worked to her advantage. She knew where the ball was going to be on the next shot and it was hard for Sloane to really get the advantage once the rallies started.
I have to say that at 31 years young, Serena is moving like she has never moved before. She looked fantastic on clay, but she has really taken that movement to the hard courts and has done tremendously well with it. She was able to expose Sloane’s weaknesses, i.e. her lazy/poor footwork, especially on the backhand side. Once Sloane started to resort to moonballing instead of hitting the ball, I knew Serena would win the match.
I have been watching Sloane play for a long time now and the lazy footwork has been there for as long as I have watched her play. You would think that the USTA or her coaches would have found someone to teach her foot drills or something. Lazy and/or poor footwork was something that Serena suffered throughout most of her career, but these days, it is clear that she has been doing foot drills because when she is on the baseline you can see her mentally telling herself to move her feet.
I looked up Serena’s first serve success against Sloane in the match at the AO. On that day the Fierce Queen won only 67% of her first serve points, well below her average (77.8% in 2012 and 74.5% in 2013 for FSPW). Sloane also broke Serena five times in that match, all in the second and third sets. Serena also had only 4 aces that day, in a long 3-set match. As foolish as it may seem to be overconfident against the world’s #1, I think that Sloane may have been somewhat misled by her success against Serena’s first serve at Melbourne. Whether because of injury (ankle & back) or nerves, that was one of Serena’s poorest serving days this year.
Serena didn’t have much success at Melbourne on break points (1 of 5), and she didn’t have much success in the first set yesterday either (2 of 8). Probably a combination of Serena’s overanxiety and Stephens’ commendable fighting spirit.
All in all, a very good performance by Serena against a very tough opponent. I’m betting that barring injury, Sloane will be in the top 5 by the French Open 2014, maybe sooner. She’s so much quicker and faster than the power players (Sharapova, Kvitova, Stosur, Ivanovic, and she hits so much harder than the finesse players (Radwanska, Errani, Kerber, Wozniacki, Jankovic). Athletically, she’s right up there with Azarenka and Li.
Does Sloane say and do some dumb things and make some strategic and tactical errors? Sure. But so did Azarenka three or four years ago, and look where she is now.
The one thing that might hold her book is a certain juvenile shallowness. She may be quite content with making $2.5 – $3 million or so a year as a top 10 or top 15 player. It will take a lot of work and not a little personal growth to eventually make it to the top three. But there’s nothing to keep her from doing that except herself. She has a once in a generation talent for the game.
In last paragraph above, I meant to type, “The one thing that might hold her back”
IMHO, Sloan’s game seems to be modeled after Sharapova, which while successful, has limits.
If there is anything woman’s tennis in general can learn from the top men, is bring in the modern dimension of spin into their game technique and strategy. Nadal’s success on hard and clay is directly related to his ability to go from a massive topspin, to heavy cut, to regular topspin, to flat almost at whim during a rally.
A big part of Nadal’s current rally strategy isn’t rocket science — just reurn the ball down the same line it came to you, only with more or less power and spin to make it difficult for the opponent to do much with. Nadal is really at home when the line starts and ends in the opponents ad court corner, but he can do it elsewhere. Repeat until the opponent makes an error or hits something you can take advantage of — which also means you have to be comfy moving up for half or full volleys when the opportunity is offered.
This relatively simple strategy of course assumes you’ve got the full spectrum of spins and power necessary to keep your opponent at bay — if you fail to make the shot tough enough, they’ll crush a (direction change) return and point over. There are currently no women who reuglarly show competence with this full but simple set of spin and power tools — however several women show an understanding of the strategy, using their limited set of tools.
Comments are closed.