"I knew that if I put in a little bit of work and just got back to the drawing board, I would be okay," Sloane Stephens had said joyfully after winning the 2018 Miami Open, her sixth career title in her home state of Florida.
She would defeat former 2017 French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko in straight sets. But over the few years things have changed where Stephens used to be in the top 10 now it's the top 40. There is work to do but she has won 3 titles in 2016, particpated in the Rio Olympics, had surgery for a foot injury, gathered a few more titles and even scored her first doubles title with Eugenie Bouchard at the 2017 Citi Open.
She captured her first grand slam, winning the U.S. Open in the same year from her opponent and friend Madison Keys. But keeping the same mantra season after season is a difficult task. Competition is tight and slipping in strategies to defeat strong opponents can be the usual that causes a downward spiral in rankings.
Stephens has had her time with games and matches falling from her racket but she's prove to be at times a solid, defiant player when the need arises. "I wasn't expecting a title here or anywhere really...I just want to make sure that I got my game back where I wanted it to be..."
she carefully explained. But after winning the Miami Open in 2018, the following year proved very rocky for Stephens. She did maintain her top 10 status but the Florida native's consistency had fallen off. She went as far as the fourth round of last year's Australian Open and the third round of Wimbledon.
But where she'd won the 2017 U.S. Open, it wasn't the case of even going deep as she would bow in the opening round of this year's New York event. The Pandemic made Stephens professional life even more complicated being that she couldn't practice as she wanted and needed but the entire 2020 season was either cancelled with some events and postponed with others.
A player as Stephens looking to gather consistency wasn't able to maintain the quality of performance she'd had in the past few years. At the warm-up events leading to Melbourne, she'd lose in opening rounds of Brisbane and Adelaide to players outside the 200 ranking.
Stephens would also bow at the Australian Open in the first round. She had won the 2016 Mexican Open at Acapulco whereas this year she would be defeated in the opening round. This was right before the coronavirus pandemic hit and the first time back in competition.
Players had to get adjusted to playing in 'the bubble' and the WTA's Top Seed Open in Kentucky was the first even to formulate the virus social distancing system. Stephens trudged on but was defeated by the 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez whose game has always proved impressive and threatening to many players.
Returning back to New York had significance to Sloane as she would play the Cincinnati Masters and the U.S. Open but functioning and succeeding 'in the bubble' didn't give her any rewards as she bowed at both events first to France's Caroline Garcia and then to Serena Williams.
There was only one tournament left, the French Open for Stephens to possibly settle her game as she tended to do at her last stint in Roland Garros, in making it to the quarterfinals against Johanna Konta. It wasn't meant to be as she had gotten to the second round this year, a challenging time of fighting not only the world health crisis but other determined opponents who obviously had more fight than she did to win matches and tournaments.
Where does this lead Sloane Stephens today?
There is a field of players who are always defiant to prove their worth on any surface and at any time on the competitive court. Will the Floridian native be able to pick up her game and go deep in tournaments leading to final rounds? The chances aren't what they used to be and having the formula but not being able to execute it can be a complex matter to fix.
"As long as I hung tough and took my opportunities when I could, I'd do pretty well, " Stephens had said on defeating Ostapenko in Miami a couple of years ago. There are many pieces of this difficult puzzle to complete on doing well again.
Hanging tough, taking chances to overwhelm your opponent, coming through with the successful shots at the end to win are all tangibles Stephens not only has to work on, but accomplish if she's to hoist up another trophy in this 2021 season coming up.