Friday, February 1, 2013

Minor Tweaks to the Future of American Tennis

Sloane Stephens was the story of this Australian Open. Especially since Azarenka won and now everyone is flipping out (or at least making jokes) about how she inappropriately took a time out during her semifinal match against Sloane.  But Azarenka was in firm control of that match, and has pretty convincingly gotten past her obvious “nerve” issues over the past 18 months.  That doesn’t really excuse the timing of the time out she took nor does it mean she didn’t fake it, but it would be foolish to suggest Sloane was going to suddenly turn around a match against the second best player in women’s tennis the day after she almost botched turning it around against the world’s best player who couldn’t walk.

And yet, Sloane’s slash through the draw, her ability to beat Serena, and the fact that she at least made the second set against Azarenka competitive are all more than a little exciting as both a tennis fan and an American.

Let me be clear: to those who say Sloane’s triumph over Serena was a passing of the torch – shut up. That’s just not the case.  Need I remind you of the run Serena was on? 21 straight matches.  Wimbledon, the Olympics, and the US Open.  Not just that she won those, but she fought out two tough, three-set finals at Wimbledon and the US Open.  The Olympics?  She lost a total of four games in the semi-finals and finals combined while playing the other two of women’s tennis’ “top three” – Sharapova and Azarenka. 

If she’s even 85% she will contend for every major for the next 3 years, and probably win another 3 to 5.  Venus would love to grab another one as well.  And besides, that was the first time in her entire professional career that Serena lost to an American woman who was younger than her.  I suppose that may speak to the gap in ability in American women’s tennis. Or it speaks to how incredibly dominant Serena is. Probably both.

But this article is supposed to be about Sloane, not Serena, so I digress. 

Sloane’s game has serious promise. She can crush the ball off of both wings.  She’ll have some long hours to put in over the next off season to build up her stamina, but she’s got the build to withstand continual, brutal, physical matches.  So what can she take away from this tournament? What was the difference between her comeback against Serena and her mostly-flop against Azarenka?

Unforced errors are the easy place to start.  Even against Serena she had a tendency to spray the occasional forehand – something that hurt her while Serena was hurt and having trouble moving.  Against Azarenka she hit 14 winners to 42 unforced errors; against Serena she hit 23 winners to 39 unforced errors.  Neither of those are particularly great ratios, and it’s worth noting that against Serena, Sloane had three sets, so she was basically on that same pace against Azarenka.  42 in two sets is much worse than 39 in three sets, but Serena is a much different type of player who covers the court a bit worse than Azarenka does, and she was hobbling around anyway.

So yes, she needs to cut down on her unforced errors (especially when those errors are shots where she just plain misses the sweet spot of her racket).  But every coach will tell you that.

You want something more advanced? Sloane needs to attack her opponent’s second serves.  Even more advanced? She needs to come to the net, especially during her opponent’s service games, and especially on those second serves.

Check out these stats: Against the top two women’s tennis players in the world, Sloane Stephens went a combined 26-for-31 on points when she came to the net. That’s an improbable 84% success rate (I’m really good at using a calculator).  

Let’s combine this dominance at the net with her success on her opponent’s second serves.  Out of her 5 sets against Serena and Azarenka, Sloane played 3 top-level sets – the 2nd and 3rd against Serena (S2 and S3), and the 2nd against Azarenka (A2).  In these sets, Sloane’s opponents won the following percentages of points on their second serves: 36% (S2), 40% (S3), and 29% (A2).  In the other two sets? Serena won a mammoth 90% of her second serve points, and Azarenka won 60%.  Statistics show us that Sloane needs to combine her size and athleticism at the net with her ability to attack second serves.  Rarely should a player expect to win more than 50% of their second serve points, and the more Sloane can do to keep her opponents under that threshold the better.

Finally, Sloane Stephens must realize that her serve is both consistent and a weapon. Here are her quarterfinal and semifinal matches; I won’t tell you which is which:

A)  58% first serve percentage; 104mph average first serve speed; 72% first serve points won; 91mph average second serve speed; 51% second serve points won; 5 double faults
B)  68% first serve percentage; 98mph average first serve speed; 45% first serve points won; 81mph average second serve speed; 30% second serve points won; 2 double faults

In (A) Sloane hit bigger, missed slightly more often, and tossed in a couple extra double faults.  But she also cruised through points at a time, and topped that 50% second serve threshold.  In (B) Sloane opted to take a bit of pace off of her serves.  She saw an increase in consistency, but drastically paid the price for it.

Yes, (A) is her match against Serena, and (B) is the match against Azarenka.  Part of the drop may very well be fatigue, something Sloane will naturally improve upon as she plays more and gets older (did I mention she is 19???).  But she has a strong build, and her serve could very easily become a weapon and a force, much like Serena’s.

All in all, these are little tweaks about a grander strategy Sloane should implement on the court.  But her game and competitive desire are there.  We’ve seen the occasional young American female tennis player have a break through before – Melanie Oudin briefly captured our hearts at the US Open (and subsequently won the mixed doubles title).  But Sloane, though she was on the right end of luck on that given day, upended the world’s top player.  That is something we certainly had not seen from a young American woman for nearly a decade, and I hope it is something we see much more of in the coming years.

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