Sloane Stephens: Eager To Start Winning Again

Sloane Stephens (photo: Abierto GNP Seguros)

MONTERREY/WASHINGTON, March 15, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Sloane Stephens has always been a bit of a slow starter. Last year, before the WTA tour was shut down because of the global pandemic, she lost five of her first six matches en route to a 4-11 win-loss record. This year, she’s off to an 0-3 beginning – all first-round losses – and has only played seven sets. While it may be for some a cause for concern, the 27-year-old former US Open champion remains upbeat and eager to return to the win column.

This week, the 44th-ranked American is the No. 1 seed at the WTA 250 Abierto GNP Seguros, a 32-player draw hard-court event at Club Sonoma in Monterrey, Mexico, now in its 13th edition. It’s where Stephens will see her first action since three straight lethargic losses that came in consecutive tournaments in Australia during the Aussie Summer Series of events in Melbourne. She’s played only a total of seven sets, which came against Canada’s Leylah Fernandez, Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan and Varvara Gracheva of Russia. Two of Stephens’ three losses were to opponents ranked lower than her. If all goes accordingly – and Stephens has had ample time to prepare after completing a training block back home in Florida – a week from now, she would love nothing better than to win her seventh career WTA title overall and first since mastering the Miami Open three years ago.

When Stephens was asked by Tennis TourTalk how crucial it is to do well this week in Monterrey – especially since she is the top seed – the former World No. 3 said: “I think, obviously, looking for that first win is always important. We’re already well into March. So, it would be nice to have a good result and just get some matches under my belt. Obviously, Australia didn’t go as planned. I’m looking to get going now, better late than never.”

Stephens will begin by playing a lucky loser, No. 149 Kristina Kucova of Slovakia, whom she beat in their only head-to-head meeting back in 2010. Her path to the final could include facing No. 5 seed Heather Watson, who won the Monterrey title in 2016, in the quarterfinals; and recent Guadalajara champion Sara Sorribes Tormo, who is seeded seventh in Monterrey, in the semifinals. Anchoring the lower half of the draw is No. 2 seed Nadia Podoroska, who is ranked 46th, and was a Roland Garros semifinalist last year. The field includes three Top 50 players: Stephens, Podoroska and third seed Zheng Saisai of China, ranked 48th.

On Saturday night, Sorribes Tormo became the 11 different WTA singles champions in the first 11 events of the 2021 season. When Tennis TourTalk asked Stephens if she thought the depth of women’s tennis has improved during the course of her career, she agreed. “Yes, I think the game has changed over the course of my career. I think now a lot of that is people not being able to play, not being able to travel and having to worry about regulations and restrictions,” she said.

“It gives a lot of players a chance to do well in events they wouldn’t have been seeded at if all the players were there. There are a lot of opportunities for players traveling to be able to go to these tournaments. I think now that the ranking system isn’t moving, it makes it a little bit easier to not go to tournaments. It gives room for people to come in and do well.

“I definitely think the game has changed – it’s gotten better – and the quality is high, especially for a pandemic year last year. I think people are playing really good tennis. It’s interesting but I think once things level out [with the tournaments and the schedule], there will be a little more consistency.”

Dominic Thiem: Returns to Dubai as No. 1 seed

World No. 4 Dominic Thiem of Austria is headlining this week’s 29th edition of the ATP 500 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. It’s his first visit to the Emirates since 2015. Seeded No. 1, he reached the quarterfinals of last week’s ExxonMobil Open in Doha. His last ATP Tour title came at the 2020 US Open.

During Sunday’s pre-tournament virtual press conference, Thiem said he decided that rather than go off and play the South American Golden Swing as he’s done in recent years, “it would be best to stay closer to European because of all the coronavirus restrictions. It’s a great tournament here. It’s a good opportunity and good timing to come back here.”

Asked about how he’s feeling about his game, Thiem said: “I think I’m on the right way, definitely. I’m not at the top of my game right now. Australia was pretty strange and also tough to digest in all aspects. I’m still trying to find the top of my game, to work hard every day. Strong tournaments like Doha last week and here in Dubai are always good opportunities to get matches, to play against strong opponents. I hope I make another step in the right direction.”

When the subject of world rankings came up, in lieu of newly-crowned Open 13 Provence champion Daniil Medvedev has supplanted Rafael Nadal as the World No. 2, Thiem suggested that he’s more interested in winning tournaments because in doing so his world ranking would take care of itself.

“Obviously, if you’re Top 5 in the world, you also want to become No. 1 at some point,” Thiem said. “It’s not my main focus. My main goal is to play great and go deep in the biggest tournaments. If I can do that on a consistent basis, there is a chance to become No. 1, but it’s a very long way. It’s not my ultimate main goal right now. I’m trying to work on my game and get it back to the top and that’s the only way to have a chance in the biggest tournaments. I’m trying to work hard to be on the top of my game when Roland Garros comes along.”

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