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Tennis

Sloane Stephens loses, but walks away a more educated player

Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Sloane Stephens lost in straight sets to Marion Bartoli, but she gained a wealth of experience in the match.

WIMBLEDON, England -- When Sloane Stephens reflects on her career -- or, more optimistically, when she writes her memoir -- she will dwell on 2013 as a critical year. Stephens is home-schooled, but she's getting a true education in tennis. It's not even Fourth of July weekend, and Stephens has made more than $1 million this year. She's performed on four continents. She's played a starring role in controversies memorialized on video, audio and social media. She has learned to balance media obligations, sponsor obligations and tennis obligations.

And she's also been educated on the court. She took down the mighty Serena Williams in Australia in January, and then watched as her next opponent zinged her with a bit of gamesmanship. She endured a common slump, losing eight out of nine matches during one stretch, but recovered to reach the second week of both the French Open and Wimbledon, which did wonders for her tennis GPA. In fact, odds are good that she will enter the top 10 soon, without even reaching a WTA final, much less winning a title.

Stephens got another lesson Tuesday. In the quarterfinals of this thoroughly nonsensical Wimbledon, Stephens faced Marion Bartoli of France. With so many seeds mowed down on the grass, the notion of Stephens' winning the title wasn't beyond the realm of possibility. Certainly she had the ability to get by Bartoli, given her superior power, movement and athleticism.

NGUYEN: Four players all took different routes to Wimbledon semifinals

Bartoli, though, is much further along in her education, and she brought that to bear. While Bartoli played with a game plan, hitting deep and taking away angles, Stephens seemed only to blast away. ("She has no playing patterns," a former Grand Slam champ remarked. "Zero.") With Stephens serving at 4-5 in the first set, a touch of rain fell from the sky. Whether it was because of concern for her safety or because of a realization that the kid would be more nervous after a delay, Bartoli simply refused to continue playing with the game at deuce. Who knew you could do that? Bartoli did. Sure enough, after a rain delay spanning more than two hours, she returned to break Stephens and win the set.

"It would have been nice to finish that game," Stephens said. "Coming back and serving at deuce, that's always going to be tough for anyone. I probably warmed up three times in the gym before we went back on the court. ... But that's how it is sometimes. You kind of just have to go with it."

In the second set, Bartoli comforted herself like a 12-year veteran, going through her routines between points -- quirky as they are -- and betraying little emotion. Stephens looked the part of the 20-year-old sophomore, rolling her eyes at misses, taking more risks than the situation demanded, approaching the net as though under duress. After recovering from a 3-5 deficit and rousing the crowd, Stephens had all kinds of opportunities to level the match. Forehand sailed long, backhands curled wide, first serves hit the net. Bartoli won 6-4, 7-5. Class dismissed.

"I am disappointed in myself because I know I probably could have given a little bit more," Stephens said. "I'm disappointed that my service games didn't go so well. You have to keep learning from it and keep moving forward."

Attitude is no small component when it comes to making it as a pro player. And if Stephens is looking on the bright side, she frames her tournament as such: She was prone to lapses, seldom played her best and is still learning to like grass. And she came within a few (loose) points of reaching the semifinals, picking up more than $300,000 in the process.

The other way to look at it: She lost a winnable match. And it's all part of her ongoing education.

Mailbag

I asked you two years ago if Sabine Lisicki has the guts to be a champion. You never answered my question. Do you want to answer it now?
-- Joe Johnson, Easton, Pa.

• Ask me again on Saturday afternoon. You can go either way on Lisicki. Her play here has been fantastic, including a taking-care-of-business win over Kaia Kanepi on Tuesday. Note how Sergiy Stakhovsky and Michelle Larcher de Brito played in the match after their upsets. For Lisicki to come back a day after beating Serena and sustain a high level is really a sign of maturity.

On the other hand, check out her activity this year. A lot of wacky losses, a lot of three-set defeats, a lot of erratic play even within a match. But if she wins two more matches, it's a moot point.

Who is your pick to win the women's title, now that Sabine Lisicki has beaten your eternal favorite?
-- Gans, Mumbai

• I'm out of the prediction game for a while. I prognosticate that a trophy will be awarded to a champion on Saturday and Sunday afternoon.

I bet Monica Seles and Steffi Graf are looking at the draw now and kicking themselves for retiring too soon.
-- Kent Jordan, Atlanta

• Seriously, though -- Andy Roddick must be thinking, "Hell, I would have had a chance."

I clapped and cheered at Serena's response to the asinine Annabel Croft question at her presser. She said, "Frankly, I don't care what she said. You can ask me anything about my tennis."
-- Helen, Philadelphia

• A few of you mentioned this. Here's a description of the "conTROVersy," as they say here.

To be very honest I would be quite interested in what former top-20 player Sabine Hack of Germany is doing these days. Any chance to get a quick update?
-- Andreas, Berlin

• You want Sabine Hack, we got Sabine Hack. Thanks to Wesley Allan of Charleston, Ill.: "Thought I'd give you a quick update on Jamie Yzaga and Sabine Hack. Yzaga served as Captain of the Peru Davis Cup Team for several years before being replaced by Luis Horna. In better news, Yzaga was selected as an Ambassador for the "Abamate, solo +18" campaign that seeks to stop the illegal sale of alcohol to minors in Peru. Sabine is married with two children and lives in Sarasota. I still fondly remember her 1994 win in the violently named Houston final -- Hack & (Mary) Pierce."

Shots, Miscellany

Click here to listen to Andy Murray's Spotify playlist.

• Tony de Jesus of Los Angeles: "Maybe the middle of Wimbledon is not the time to mention it, but Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones) died. Why mention to a tennis columnist? He was very active in the USTA and was a former tennis pro."

• Bud Collins gets his Hall of Fame ring.

• The great Hugh MacDonald has written Murrayball: How to gatecrash the golden era, part of a new series of 10,000-word sport shorts, now available in the Kindle Store.

• Yet another award for Roger Federer, this from the International Club.

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