Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Sloane Stephens unable to live up to hype at Wimbledon

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 02:  Sloane Stephens of United States of America plays a forehand during the Ladies' Singles quarter-final match against Marion Bartoli of France on day eight of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at Wimbledon on July 2, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 02: Sloane Stephens of United States of America plays a forehand during the Ladies' Singles quarter-final match against Marion Bartoli of France on day eight of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at Wimbledon on July 2, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

So to see the one Serena has anointed as the woman to replace her as Wimbledon champion.

When a clearly shocked Williams told a press conference in the immediate aftermath of her surprise exit on Monday that she thought Sloane Stephens could win it, eyebrows were raised. Was she thinking straight?

It's true that at the start of the year Stephens was being hailed as the future of US tennis (they need a new champion even more than we do) and beating Williams at the Australian Open seemed to cement that belief.

But a string of poor results since and a spat with Williams, who was widely assumed to be the young girl's mentor, in which she claimed Serena had blanked her since the win, even unfollowing her on Twitter, seems to have taken the shine off somewhat.

Nevertheless, the longing for Sloane to come good is palpable among the American contingent at Wimbledon.

A good looking black woman, built more like Venus than Serena, taking over the mantle from the sisters is the perfect narrative.

On Number One court yesterday she had the ideal opponent to test her credentials. No-one is ever going to fall in love with the tennis played by 15th seed Marion Bartoli, the 2007 finalist.

She's a pocket battleship, always dancing and punching her racquet in the air, bustling around the court like a Tasmanian Devil.

Clenching her fists after every point won, she seeks to grind her opponents down. Stephens is different, tall, slim and graceful, but as Bartoli was to discover, also potentially fragile.

Standing inside the baseline on Stephens' serve and almost on the service square for her second, Bartoli took the game to the girl from Florida.

In truth it was pretty uninspired tennis until the sixth game when Bartoli made her move but found her opponent holding with a strong nerve, winning from 0-30 down and surviving three break points.

With the first set poised at 5-4 Bartoli (below) made sure she would play pantomime villain by protesting about the drops of rain that were falling on the court, virtually refusing to play on until the referee was called.

Further heavier rain made the decision easy but the French woman departed under some heavy un-Wimbledon-like boos.

The jeers continued after the hour long rain break but Bartoli diffused them with an "I'm sorry" shrug.

The break was bad for Stephens and she was promptly broken to lose the first set 6-4.

What followed next was remarkable.

In the second set Stephens was broken six times (some kind of quarter final record?) with the first five garnering her just one solitary point.

That she only lost the second set and thus the match 7-5 was that Bartoli could not hold either apart from the start and end of the set.

Stephens serve was weak and she over-hit virtually every forehand. With the crowd behind her with curiously posh English cries of "come on Sloane" throughout, she hung in with some great cross courts but the unforced error count was growing ever higher.

But the wily campaigner Bartoli, who was never going to be the crowd's sweetheart, simply had to keep feeding her opponent's forehand and a win was inevitable.

Stephens departed with a wave to her new friends on Number One and Bartoli with a grudging respect for the fighter she clearly is.

As far as Serena's tip for the top goes it might be time to start following on social media her again with some tips about turning grace and style into diamond-edged toughness.

For America has a little longer to wait for an heiress apparent on this evidence. However one thing is becoming clear. Whoever had won that match will not beat Sabine Lisicki to the Wimbledon title.

The German, seeded 23, may have shocked tennis with her win over Serena on Monday but she has become a serious threat at these championships.

The women's game has needed new challengers to come along for a while now and the Radwanska/Lisicki semi-final on Thursday promises to give us some clues about whether there's a new force in town.

Yesterday, Lisicki demolished Laura Robson's nemesis with imperious ease.

Estonian Kaia Kanepi is a tall, rangy player with a decent serve but she was no match for a German at the top of her game. Lisicki won because she has more power and a fantastic ability to get low into her shots.

At times she was on one knee as she delivered rapier cross court back hands. She's like a crouching tiger, springing out of her shots with a fantastic kinetic energy.

In the first set she moved Kanepi around the court with ease. On top of that she has an explosive serve, clocking in at an average of 115 mph against which Kanepi could find no answer.

A 6-3, 6-3 win in little over an hour saw the smiling Sabine crowned the new Queen of Wimbledon.

Frankly in a field of stern faced baseline bandits, a smile and searing ground strokes is all it takes.

Lisicki is looking a decent outside bet for the crown.

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