Sloane Stephens is knocking at the door of a Grand Slam final. But before she can walk through, she needs to upgrade her game.
Stephens, ranked No. 15, has been one of the most consistent players on the WTA tour.
She reached the third round or better at the last six Grand Slam events.
Despite a slump earlier in the year, Stephens advanced to the semifinals at the Australian Open, where she defeated Serena Williams. She made it to the fourth round at the French Open and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
She was the last American to exit Wimbledon, outlasting Williams, who lost in the fourth round against Sabine Lisicki.
However, a quarterfinals loss to eventual winner Marion Bartoli highlighted Stephens' weaknesses.
If Stephens wants to move beyond "promising American" to Grand Slam champion, she has to mend the following holes in her game.
Get More Aggressive
Stephens has such a powerful forehand. She can hit winners from three feet behind the baseline.
The problem is that's where she lives, two to three feet behind the baseline.
That works against players outside the Top 20. But no way can she take that game into a Grand Slam final and hope to emerge hoisting a trophy.
Stephens must become more aggressive. She has speed and excellent court coverage. She would benefit from charging in and taking the ball out of the air. She needs to use that wicked forehand motion on some drive volleys.
Improve Mental Toughness
After upsetting Williams at the Australian Open, Stephens lost five of her following seven matches. Worse, she seemed to collapse in matches. In a 6-4, 2-6, 0-6 loss to Agnieszka Radwanska at the Sony Open, Stephens lost 12 of the last 14 games. In the last set she won only two points on her serve.
When Stephens loses focus, she becomes an unforced error machine. She produced an astounding 74 unforced errors in her Fed Cup loss. Her play was so bad that she was essentially benched and replaced by an aging and ailing Venus Williams.
It's okay to have mental lapses in matches. What Stephens has to avoid are the cerebral lulls she takes in some matches.
Remain Positive, Less Negative
Superstars like Williams, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are sometimes demonstrative on the court. But there's a difference between the anger and frustration those players display and the indifference that Stephens shows.
Djokovic, Murray and Williams scream at themselves, as if to say, "Hey, you know you're better than this." They make gestures at their box or sometimes yell in the air. They do this because like most Grand Slam champions, they believe the outcome of the match rests on their racket. They know what they want to do on the court and become frustrated when they can't execute it.
Stephens, on the other hand, slumps her shoulders and shuffles her feet on the baseline like a child who's been told to get to the back of the ice cream line.
She pouts as if to say, "I'm defeated."
If she wants to get over the semifinal hump and into a final, she has to stop this. It sends a message to her opponent that the outcome rests on their racket.
Stephens' overall game is solid. She is as fit and athletic as anyone in the Top 10.
She's only 20, but you get the feeling that now's the time for her to make a move. And most of the movement needs to take place between her ears.
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