Last year’s result
Stephens capped off a magnificent summer with a thrilling run to the title in New York last year. She had begun the summer on the edge of falling outside the top 1000 after nearly a year out with a serious foot injury. But she announced her return with back-to-back semifinal appearances in Toronto and Cincinnati. She then delivered excellent performance after excellent performance in New York, besting Venus Williams in a semifinal thriller and an injured Keys in the final to win her first Major.
Though she has not lacked success this year, Stephens has struggled to find much consistency. She broke a run of early exits by winning the title in Miami, but did not reach another final until Roland Garros, where she lost to Simona Halep. She then lost first round at Wimbledon to Donna Vekic and in the second round in Washington, where she was second seed, to Andrea Petkovic of Germany. But her form improved dramatically in Montreal.
She began with a dominant 6-0 6-2 win over Canadian wild card Francoise Abanda, before dismissing Carla Suarez Navarro 6-2 7-5. Anastasija Sevastova offered little challenge in a 2-6 2-6 loss before Stephens brushed aside defending champion Elina Svitolina. In the final, however, Halep proved too strong, winning 7-6 3-6 6-4. In Cincinnati, Stephens’ inconsistency continued as, despite beginning well with a 6-3 6-2 win over Tatjana Maria, she lost to Elise Mertens 6-7 2-6 in the third round.
Most important shot
Unlike many of her compatriots, Stephens generally plays with a less than aggressive mindset. She typically relies on her impressive foot speed and court coverage to frustrate opponents before counter-punching with power of her own. But Stephens has had the most success in her career when she has been able to combine that more defensive-style with a willingness to step in and dictate when the situation calls for it.
And when she does so it is her forehand that she relies on to do the majority of the offensive damage to her opponents. When she has time on the ball it is a dangerous weapon indeed, although her large takebacks can leave her vulnerable when rushed. Playing aggressively is vital for Stephens on a hard court as whilst she can use her defensive skills alone to win on slower courts, on faster courts without the ability to pack an offensive punch of her own, wins are hard to come by.
Stephens has been so hit and miss this year that it is hard to predict with much certainty how she will play at any given tournament. But she clearly enjoys playing in New York and will have the confidence built from her title run last year to help her when under pressure. She should also receive the support of the crowd who often play an oversized part at the US Open. A good run for her seems very possible this year. But as the defending champion more than a good run will be expected.
For Stephens it will be hard to judge this US Open a success unless she wins the title. And unfortunately for the American that does not look particularly likely. Though she has played some good tennis of late, there look to be a number of other players in better position to go all the way, particularly Halep who has raised her level over the past few months and has been all but unstoppable. The semifinals look within reach, the final is a possibility, the title is unlikely.