Sloane Stephens roared back from a set down to upset Maria Sharapova in the second round of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati on Tuesday.
It was an affirmation of Stephens' world-class talent—another flash of brilliance that suggests the 20-year-old American will emerge as the next big star in women's tennis.
However, for Stephens to reach the pinnacle of the sport and capture multiple Grand Slam singles titles, she must show more consistency. In the first set, she was beaten badly by Sharapova 6-2, but did rally to win the subsequent tiebreaker 7-5 before blowing by the world No. 3 6-3 in the decisive third set.
Stephens trailed 0-2 in the second set before mounting her charge against Sharapova, which shows the type of resolve she's building at such a young age. That will be critical for her success as her promising career progresses.
This isn't the first time in 2013 Stephens has picked up a marquee victory. At the Australian Open, she stunned top-ranked Serena Williams to advance to the semifinals.
Few players can trade blows with the likes of Williams and Sharapova, but Stephens is one of them. Even at 20, Stephens has the all-around game to compete well on any surface, possessing the requisite combination of fitness, firepower and touch that defines the game's greats.
Sharapova remarked how great Stephens was at retrieving balls and how she made her hit a lot of shots, some of which looked like winners but somehow came back over the net, per WTAtennis.com:
Sloane is a great retriever...She makes you hit a lot of balls and sometimes you think it's a great shot but it keeps coming back. You just have to make her - any opponent - hit a few extra times. That's not something I did at the end of the second and the third.
Neither player was at her best by any means, as Stephens started out the match rough but ended with 20 winners to 51 unforced errors, while Sharapova—playing in her first match in seven weeks—was showing signs of rust. The four-time Grand Slam winner had 16 winners and 62 unforced errors.
Part of that can be attributed to extensive rallies and dueling aggressive styles of play, but Stephens showed the perseverance even in the face of near-certain defeat to will her way to victory.
It was only a second-round match. Sharapova wasn't in ideal shape but was imposing her will and appeared to have a stranglehold on the match. Stephens remained patient, which caused Sharapova to press and make an uncharacteristic amount of errors when it mattered most.
To put a seasoned champion like Sharapova in that type of position, Stephens had to elevate her game against a magnificent opponent in the face of adversity. That is the type of elite material that separates the best from the rest.
This type of win is part of what will propel the No. 17-ranked Stephens into the select elite company of women's tennis. She may only own one ITF singles title, but Stephens is definitely on the come-up and has plenty of time to blossom.
That process is already beginning with her scene-stealing wins against Williams and Sharapova. Combine that with overall impressive results to date in Grand Slams, and all the makings of a star in Stephens are evident.
With the success she had in Australia on hard courts, it stands to reason that Stephens might officially arrive at the U.S. Open in the coming weeks.
Note: Statistics and background information are courtesy of WTAtennis.com.
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