Rising Stars Shine at the 2012 US Open

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     “She’s an incredible athlete, which you clearly need in this sport. We’re looking, potentially, at the next superstar in the women’s game. She loves it, and she’s getting better each month you see her.” John McEnroe, a 1980s superstar and now an ESPN analyst, lavished this praise on Sloane Stephens.

     The 19-year-old American overpowered No. 22 seed Francesca Schiavone (her sixth win over a top 30 opponent), overcame qualifier Tatjana Malek 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 and then lost the plot and the match 6-7, 6-4, 6-2 to No. 12 seed Ana Ivanovic. The turning point against Ivanovic came at 4-all in the second set. Stephens committed the cardinal sin of changing a winning game and became too passive, hitting forehands, backhands and serve with considerably less power. The opportunistic Ivanovic whacked two straight service return winners to break serve and never looked back.

     McEnroe’s prediction might prove right if Stephens learns important lessons from this loss. First, never change a winning game. Second, if you get nervous, keep moving your feet and keep accelerating your swing. Stephens particularly needed faster and better backhand footwork to avoid hitting the ball on the back foot, which produced short shots that Ivanovic attacked. Third, she should not retreat far behind the baseline. That positional mistake put Stephens on the defensive against Ivanovic’s powerful crosscourt groundstrokes and reduced her ability to get to net where she won 14 of 16 points (88%).

     Jack Sock, another fast-rising 19-year American, upset No. 22 seed Florian Mayer in the first round and brimmed with confidence. “I feel like my game is right on the verge of going to the next level,” crowed Sock after he smacked 15 aces and 42 winners to overpower Italian veteran Flavio Cipolla 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 to reach the US Open third round. Before facing No. 11 seed Nicolas Almagro, he confided, “I haven’t felt nervous before a match in a long time.”

     Sock slams serves in the 130-135 mph range and boasts a ferocious forehand. “When Jack Sock is hitting his forehand well, it’s among the top 10 forehands on tour,” said four-time major winner Jim Courier, now an ESPN analyst. “Jack has a huge upside when he figures out how to use his forehand, when to use it and how to get more of them. He has top-10 firepower and a very, very high ceiling.”

     Almagro’s 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-1 victory, however, exposed Sock’s relatively weak backhand, mediocre mobility and lack of fitness. Three match statistics stood out. Sock converted only one 1 of 11 break point chances; he committed 52 unforced errors compared to 24 for Almagro; and he won a terrific 83% of net points (25 of 30). Sock also excels in doubles, winning the mixed doubles title here last year with Melanie Oudin and upsetting No. 1 seeded Max Mirnyi and Dan Nestor with Steve Johnson this year. Sock looks 10 to 15 pounds overweight. If he becomes a fitness fanatic like Courier and gains much-needed experience, he should realize his considerable potential in both events.

     The “popcorn match” of the first week featured No. 6 seed Angelique Kerber vs. unseeded and aging (32), but still-dangerous Venus Williams. After a desultory opening set marred by Venus’s erratic play, the duel between contrasting stylists lived up to expectations.

     At 6-2, 3-3, 15-0 with Venus serving, she won a grueling point. ESPN analyst Chris Evert pointed out, “Venus is working so hard just to win a point from Kerber.” That is the ultimate compliment a player can receive. Hard-hitting Venus also deserved high praise for rebounding to win four straight games when Kerber served for the match at 5-4. That momentum carried her to a 4-2 lead in the third set. Many in the highly partisan crowd chanted “Let’s go Venus!”

     The versatile Kerber withstood Venus’s barrage and became more aggressive herself, a smart decision, to prevail 6-2, 5-7, 7-5. “She never let the crowd or Venus’s power get to her,” said Evert. “She’s as tough as nails mentally.”

     Laura Robson also showed poise and tenacity far beyond her 18 years to upset three-time U.S. champion Kim Clijsters 7-6, 7-6 and No. 9 seed Li Na 6-4, 6-7, 6-2. A power player with a strong first serve, which averaged 103 mph and produced nine aces against Li, the British lefty’s chief weakness is court coverage. She faces defending champion Samantha Stosur in the fourth round. Milos Raonic, a rocket-serving but slow-footed, 21-year-old Canadian seeded No. 15, beat Santiago Giraldo and veterans Paul-Henri Mathieu and James Blake to set up an intriguing match against No. 3 and Olympic gold medalist Andy Murray.

     Which of these rising stars will shine brightest? Which will fade or even burn out prematurely? The second week of the Open will provide some answers for Kerber, Robson and Raonic.

THE END

     Paul Fein has received more than 30 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England.

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