Is Sloane Stephens Ready to Take Next Step in Her Career vs. Victoria Azarenka?

Lindsay GibbsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 18, 2014

Sloane Stephens of the U.S. celebrates after winning her second round match against Ajla Tomljanovic of Croatia at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014.(AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press

And so they meet again.

At Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne on Monday morning (or Sunday night for those of us in America), Sloane Stephens will have a chance for revenge when she faces Victoria Azarenka in the fourth round of the Australian Open.

The rematch will be a good chance to see exactly how far Stephens has come over the past 12 months, to gauge whether or not the often outspoken 20-year-old is ready to make a push for the Top 10 and beyond—or whether her career will remain status quo in 2014. 

Stephens and Azarenka after their match last year.
Stephens and Azarenka after their match last year.Aaron Favila/Associated Press

Last year, after shocking the world with her upset over a hobbled Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals, Stephens fell to Azarenka in the semifinals.

Ranked No. 25 at the time, the surprise semifinalist Stephens was a huge underdog to the No. 1 player in the world, and the match reflected that, with Azarenka winning 6-1, 6-4. But, of course, along the way, things got a bit complicated.

Stephens, who is known to be a slow starter, began to get her feet into the match halfway through the second set. Azarenka, meanwhile, so close to her second straight Australian Open final, began to feel the weight of the moment. As she was serving up 5-2 in the second set, the Belarusian blew five match points. Then, before Stephens went to serve to stay in the match, Azarenka took a 10-minute medical timeout off court.

The timeout made international headlines, as countless journalists and fans accused Azarenka of gamesmanship. But the controversy overshadowed one very important thing: On that day, Azarenka was the better, more experienced player. Just 19 and playing in the late stages of a major for the first time, Stephens wasn't ready for the next step quite yet.

In the year since then, Stephens has impressed and disappointed in equal measure. She made the second week of the remaining three slams of the year, losing to Maria Sharapova in the fourth round of the French Open, Marion Bartoli in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. 

But on the smaller stages, she has struggled mightily. She was overwhelmed in situations where she was expected to win, and she often seemed perturbed by the media attention and expectations that came with her higher profile. Nobody said growing up in the spotlight was easy.

There was some more controversy along the way, too. In an interview with ESPN the Magazine in March, Stephens was overly candid about what she considered the demise of her relationship with Williams—likely because she thought the comments were off the record. She blasted Williams for not stopping to give her an autograph when she was 12, not talking to her after their Australian Open match and not being the mentor that the media portrayed her to be. 

Stephens and Williams after their U.S. Open encounter.
Stephens and Williams after their U.S. Open encounter.David Goldman/Associated Press

It was an interview and a subsequent media firestorm that showcased just how young, naive and often self-involved Stephens was, and how much maturing she needed to do off the court in order to fully handle the rigors that come with success in her chosen profession.

Now, ranked No. 13 in the world and no longer a teenager, Stephens is looking to move forward with her career. The next step involves bringing her best tennis, week in and week out, and challenging the top players on the biggest stages, even when they're not dealing with injuries.

Stephens parted ways with her old coach David Nainkin at the end of 2013, and she joined forces with the legendary Paul Annacone, who has coached Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. Her run to the fourth round of the Australian Open this year has been impressive, as she has showcased her ability to get herself out of tight situations and excited the crowds with her lethal forehand.

She's also proved that the Serena controversy last year has not made her shy to the press. After her third-round victory, Stephens told the press that her relationship with Azarenka was "nonexistent" and described her first time meeting Annacone as "creepy" because "it was like [he was] an old guy."

As for the drama in her match with Azarenka last year, Stephens doesn't seem to be dwelling on it. "That has nothing to do with this year," she said. "I don't even remember half the stuff that happened. It's okay."

Stephens is, undoubtedly, a solid Top 20 player, and she can be for some time. However, it seems like she has the potential and the desire to be something more. She'll get another chance on Monday to prove if the new coach and the new mindset are leading to bigger and better moments on the tennis court. 

The opponent and arena might be the same as last year, but the circumstances are quite different. This year, Stephens does have something to prove against Azarenka. And though she won't admit it, a little retribution might be nice too.