A Day In May: The Story Of Sloane Stephens And Arantxa Rus - UBITENNIS
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A Day In May: The Story Of Sloane Stephens And Arantxa Rus

Here is the story of Sloane Stephens and Arantxa Rus’ journey to their Roland Garros first round match.

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Sloane Stephens (zimbio.com)

By Cheryl Jones

 

It’s the final Sunday of May and the day before Memorial Day is celebrated in the United States. The Indianapolis 500 has its permanent place in the US television listings to celebrate the occasion in style. At the end of all those laps, there will be a winner and cheers and so they say, milk will flow in celebration.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, halfway across France actually, Roland Garros has begun. Throngs of people from all over the world anxiously await the appearance of the first dusty-red service from their favourite player, or at least the pro in residence on court today. (Sunday is the kickoff for a fortnight of activities that will culminate in winners in all the categories. Men’s and Women’s singles, doubles as well as mixed doubles will have winners before the gates lock and the hustle and bustle of literally hundreds of thousands of visitors are stilled as they head home to either celebrate or commiserate.) As a journalist, I am not supposed to have a favourite player, but there are a few players who have more than piqued my interest over the years.

Junior players are allowed to strut their stuff during the second week of each of the majors, and many of them have looked strong, only to fade away when the experienced competition has a more “well founded” game. That’s nothing new. Every year, one hundred twenty-eight players make up the list of competitors, yet only one will take home the prize. Two women have withstood that test of time, and they had a meeting today.

Sloane Stephens and Arantxa Rus slid into the tennis world as junior players. They were both good. They have taken similar routes to their meeting today. One has been extremely successful and the other has had a ho-hum career that has paid the bills, but not much else. Stephens has won nearly $10 million dollars on the tour, and Rus has languished in the rankings, settling precariously at 106 before today’s match. Stephens has been up and down in the rankings and even though she is nearly two years younger than Rus, is ranked 10 today. (Last September she stood in Arthur Ashe Stadium and raised the winner’s trophy at the US Open, surprising everyone, and apparently even herself.)

Ten years or so ago, just steps away from the Roland Garros grounds, a couple from The Netherlands who just happened to speak English struck up a conversation. Their daughter was set to begin play in the junior tournament. She was sixteen. Their pride was visible and after watching the youngster play, I had to agree that she seemed to have promise. She won the Australian Open Junior Girls’ Championship in 2008. Now she’s twenty-seven and still struggling to make a name for herself on the tour.

She lost in the final round of qualifying for this year’s Roland Garros, but made it into the draw as a Lucky Loser when Monica Niculescu had to withdraw due to a left leg injury. It was her first appearance in a Main Draw at a Grand Slam since 2013 Wimbledon, where she fell to Olga Puchkova in the first round. Today, she lost to Stephens, 6-2, 6-0, in ten minutes less than an hour. That was after Rus managed to have over 80 per cent of her first serves appropriately in play. The problem seemed to be that she couldn’t build on that foundation to win games.

Rus was ranked as high as number 61 in August of 2012. Over the years, she has won a few tournaments and lost a few more. This was her fifth main draw appearance at Roland Garros. She actually made it to the Round of 16 in 2012. In 2011, she took charge of a match at Roland Garros and defeated Kim Clijsters. The following year, in a second round match, she defeated Samantha Stosur at Wimbledon. Since then, she has come out on top in a myriad of small tournaments, but has had virtually no luck with the majors.

Stephens on the other hand has shown more than promise. In 2017, she walked away with the top women’s prize at the US Open, defeating another American player, Madison Keyes. That feat was accomplished after she spent the better part of a year recovering from foot surgery. Deservedly, she was voted the 2017 Comeback Player of the Year. (Her ranking had dropped to 957 and her diligent play between Wimbledon and the Open had upped that ranking to 83 when the tournament began.) A few months later, she finished 2017 ranked 13.

After that triumph, Stephens competed, but often appeared as if she wasn’t here. It was confusing to spectators and evidently Stephens, too. In her after match interview today, she spoke at length about that time in her life. “I had to take care of myself. I tried to do way more than I should have after the U.S. Open, and I should have just shut it down. But like I’ve said before, my heart was there but my body wasn’t. So when the two things aren’t connected, it’s never a good thing.” Not only is she a great tennis player, but a smart human being.

Time will provide the answers to both women. Rus at twenty-seven may have opportunities to make a better showing at major tournaments. After all, there are twenty-four women who are thirty or older in the Women’s Main Draw today. Several of them have had astonishingly long careers. Venus Williams, who is 37, comes to mind, but alas, she lost today to a twenty-six year old from China by the name of Qiang Wang, ranked 91. Williams’ ranking of 9 in the world will likely go away before long. She has been a phenomenal competitor for twenty-four years. (Williams’ main draw debut was in Oakland in 1994 as an unranked Wild Card. She defeated Shaun Stafford in the first round, but lost to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in three sets. Sanchez Vicario was at that point, number two in the world.)

Stephens will play at Roland Garros another day. Rus won’t. Life in the tennis world is like that. And the beat goes on. Tomorrow is another day.

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Laver Back In the Conversation For Greatest Player?

Daniil Medvedev thwarted Djokovic’s Calendar Year Grand Slam ambitions and is ready to take over as the best in the game.

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Who’s the greatest player ever?

 

How about Rod Laver, the owner of two Calendar Grand Slams?

Or what about Rafa Nadal, the owner of 21 major singles titles (including Olympic Gold)?

Or what about 20-20-20-Laver?

HOW DOES 20-20-20-LAVER SOUND?

Since Novak Djokovic failed in his bid to win a Calendar Grand Slam on Sunday, I nominate the last of the three possibilities. 20-20-20-Laver sounds like a winner.

For Djokovic just to enter the conversation was a major achievement, and that was spurred by the Serbian’s bid for a Calendar Grand Slam.

Daniil Medvedev ended that conversation on Sunday, at least for now, with his straight-set 4-4-4 dismantling of Djokovic in the U.S. Open final.

DISAPPOINTING YEAR FOR NOVAK

As 2021 turned out, it was a really disappointing year for Djokovic, even though he won the year’s first three Grand Slam events. Most players would be out celebrating if they won three Grand Slams in one year.

The loss to Alexander Zverev in the Tokyo Olympics ended Novak’s Golden Grand Slam. And then Medvedev took care of the Calendar Grand Slam talk and the possibility of Djokovic breaking a 20-20-20 deadlock with Nadal and Roger Federer.

So, what’s next? I doubt that Novak is planning to skip the Australian Open in January. Even that one won’t be easy for Djokovic as a result of what has happened in late summer.

NO PICNIC DOWN UNDER FOR NOVAK

Djokovic has practically owned the Australian Open with nine titles in Melbourne, and eight of the last 11. But Medvedev and Zverev will be major obstacles for Djokovic in Melbourne, along with Stefanos Tsitsipas.

The Australian Open isn’t likely to be a picnic for Novak, even if Federer and Nadal skip the trip. If so, Federer and Nadal will be leaving the Australian Open in capable hands.

Things should start heating up by the quarterfinals Down Under.

By the way, Djokovic is 34 years old. That’s about the age Nadal started having trouble winning Grand Slams.

A DOMINANT VICTORY FOR THE RUSSIAN

Medvedev beat Djokovic at just about everything he tried on Sunday. Djokovic was never in the game on serving competition or powerful forehands.

Those areas belonged to the 25-year-old Russian.

And movement? On this day, Medvedev had a picnic. The 6-6 first-time Grand Slam winner was everywhere with his amazing quickness. Djokovic couldn’t put a dent in his baseline defense.

Medvedev even out-did Djokovic in the Serbian’s usually solid drop shot department, pinning  even more disappointment on Novak.

Novak even caused a ball girl to change directions during the match as he swung his racket near the surface in  frustration after losing a point. Later, he punished his racket by smashing it into the court and destroying it.

MEDVEDEV’S SERVE MADE THE DIFFERENCE

The key to the relatively easy win for Medvedev was his serve. He was a perfect 15-for-15 on first-serve points in the opening set.

Medvedev obviously had little trouble with his serve until he was ready to end the match. With Medvedev owning a match point at 5-2 in the third set, the crowd tried to help Djokovic. Only then when the crowd got into the act of trying to break Medvedev’s attention did he double-fault twice in a row before netting a forehand to give Djokovic the game.

But in the final game of the match, Medvedev was ready for the crowd attack, although he double-faulted another match point away before ending the match with a big serve out wide for a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory. Djokovic managed only to hit the bottom of the net with his backhand return.

And suddenly, the tall Russian looks like the best player in the game.


James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as the tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspapers. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com

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Raducanu Proved She’s The Better Player

The British sensation shocked the tennis world – can she keep it up in the coming years?

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They played in the largest tennis stadium in the world.

 

They were teenagers. They achieved a dream early in their careers.

It just as easily could have been a junior championship a year earlier in their careers.

Only a few people would have been watching then. Such an event might not even have drawn newspaper coverage.

REAL LIFE NOW SETS IN

This meeting was much bigger and more important. The two participants would be $2.7 million richer between them before the day ended. They would become famous the world over, at least for now.

But this was Saturday, 9/11/21.

Real life now sets in. There probably are at least 100 other players in the world who are just as outstanding as Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez. Yet, most of them will never be involved in a Grand Slam singles final.

NEVER TO BE FORGOTTEN

What Raducanu and Fernandez accomplished will never be forgotten, always listed in tennis annals.

England will always be proud of its new Grand Slam champion. At long last, Virginia Wade has company.

And Canada will never forget its feisty Grand Slam runner-up.

They stood the test while other more touted and talented players buckled at the knees. High-ranked players crumbled at the thought of losing to a mere teenager.

Next time, that advantage probably won’t exist.

BRITISH 18-YEAR-OLD WAS THE STRONGER PLAYER

Raducanu and Fernandez played the final like the teenagers they are.

Raducanu came close to making it a one-sided result when she held match point twice with a 5-2 lead in the second set. But Fernandez did not give up on her left-handed game that Raducanu had conquered before in the junior ranks.

After losing both points and the game to make the match closer, Raducanu fought off a pair of break points in the next game before making good on her third match point for a 6-4, 6-3 victory.

The British 18-year-old generally outplayed the 19-year-old Fernandez most of the 111-minute final. Raducanu had more firepower on her serve and ground strokes.

RADUCANU A PERFECT 10

Raducanu played like a tour veteran, even if it was only her fourth tour-level event. It was her 10th straight win without dropping a set, counting her three wins in qualifying just to get into the main draw. No women’s qualifier before even had advanced to a Grand Slam final.

She has the game to win consistently on the tour, but probably not strong enough to challenge the Top 10 players and Grand Slam titlists right away. She’s now no longer under the radar. Everyone wants to beat a Grand Slam champion.

This may have been just a one-shot opening that Raducanu took full advantage of to win a Grand Slam title.  Just in case the road ahead gets bumpy, she might want to be thrifty with the $1.8 million payday.


James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as the tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspapers. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com

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Novak Djokovic Was Pushed To An Amazing Performance

Zverev fell just short of beating the world N.1, and now Medvedev is the last obstacle still standing on his path to a Calendar Year Grand Slam

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Novak Djokovic was simply amazing Friday night.

 

True, he made a few mistakes against Alexander Zverev, but not when they counted most.

Zverev also was superb, but his mistakes came when they counted really big.

For those reasons, Djokovic is getting ready to play for the unthinkable. No one had thought much about a Calendar Grand Slam until back in June when Djokovic shocked the tennis world with a victory over Rafa Nadal at the French Open.

By the time Wimbledon came around without Roger Federer and Nadal in the field, the odds were high that Djokovic actually could achieve a Calendar Grand Slam. And then he won Wimbledon and in the process turned the race for most Grand Slam titles into a 20-20-20 battle.

ZVEREV CAME CLOSE TO SPOILING THINGS

When Federer and Nadal pulled out of the U.S. Open, all of Djokovic’s goals except a Golden Grand Slam when he lost to Zverev at the Olympics were in play.

Nearly two weeks later, Djokovic is one victory away from breaking out of the 20-20-20 deadlock as well as completing a rare Calendar Grand Slam.

Zverev pressed Djokovic into playing his very best to escape with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 victory in the U.S. Open semifinals. Only a cold start to the fifth set chilled Zverev’s hopes of spoiling Novak’s dreams.

Even after losing the first five games of the fifth set, Zverev still came close to making things interesting by winning the next two games and going to 30-30 in the eighth game.

MEDVEDEV HAS THE GAME TO WIN

Zverev’s improving game, and his big strokes and serves probably were enough to make Novak hope he won’t have to face Zverev’s hard balls again in January at the Australian Open.

That leaves only Daniil Medvedev between Djokovic and immortality.

Medvedev will have to be at his best to beat Novak. The slender 6-6 Russian can’t afford even a brief meltdown if he is to take Djokovic to the wire.

Medvedev appeared to be in awe of Djokovic when the two met in  this year’s Australian Open final.  Djokovic won that one easily in straight sets.

DANIIL IS DUE TO MAKE HIS MARK; IT’S HIS TIME

Medvedev’s game is a piece of work. He is completely unpredictable.

His whip forehand is one of the best shots in tennis. He backs it up with incredible movement.

It all depends on whether Medvedev can stick with Novak until the end. If Medvedev is still there, Novak likely will feel the heavy legs from his 214-minute bout with Zverev.

Not even Djokovic can out-move Medvedev. And the Russian’s uniquely quick serve has plenty of pop. He is due to win a Grand Slam.

But Medvedev will have to pull off a miracle against one of the smartest and slyest players tennis has ever seen if he is to win this U.S. Open.


James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as the tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspapers. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com

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