Johanna Larsson stuns Sloane Stephens in Round 2 of the U.S. Open
NEW YORK -- Sloane Stephens' slump continued on Wednesday, as the 21-year-old American lost to No. 96 Johanna Larsson 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 in the second round of the U.S. Open. Stephens led 7-5, 3-0 and earned a break advantage in the final set at 2-0, but couldn't close the match. She hit 36 winners and 63 unforced errors, while Larsson wisely kept things simple by forcing Stephens to hit as many balls as possible. The Swede, who is into the third round of the U.S. Open for just the second time in her career, hit 11 winners and 30 unforced errors.
Three thoughts on Stephens' early exit:
Stephens' slump continues: Stephens was given a lot of slack for her poor performance outside the majors over the last two years because she was young, talented and when the biggest tournaments rolled around, she invariably delivered. Even with Wednesday afternoon's loss, she is 32-14 at the Slams while tallying a pedestrian 58-57 mark at all other tournaments. It was easy to believe that she was just a bit match player, and really, wouldn't you rather have that than the week-in week-out grinder? But Stephens hasn't been doing much winning of any kind over the last two months. Her streak of making the second week at six consecutive Slams ended with a first round loss to Maria Kirilenko at Wimbledon. After Wednesday's results, she's lost before the third round of the U.S. Open for the first time in her career.
Don't bother trying to get any insight from Stephens: She blamed her inability to close out the match on getting "shaky" in the second set and gave credit to Larsson for her play in the third. But Larsson didn't force Stephens to hit 63 unforced errors -- that's essentially the definition of the stat: when an error in a service or return shot cannot be attributed to any factor other than poor judgment and execution. When things got tough on Wednesday and Larsson made a charge, Stephens was never able to tap into any sort of positive emotion to turn things around.
Was it the occasion of playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium? That's hard to believe given the relatively empty stadium for the first match of the day and the fact that she's played in front of bigger, more vocal crowds before. She wasn't playing a particularly intimidating opponent, either. Larsson is a solid player but she lacks any significant weapons. She has spent most of her season playing on the ITF circuit and Stephens should have handled her easily. What about the heat? Temperatures hit the upper 80s on Wednesday afternoon, but Stephens dismissed that as a factor.
The speculation will continue from here because if you ask her to explain it, all you get are empty clichés: Just got to work harder. Just have fun on the court. Just have to work my way through it. Stephens repeated the phrases over and over. "I'm sure you guys will be here every tournament to see me get through it. So welcome and I'm glad you guys are along for the ride," she said in a press conference after the match. The sarcasm was evident, as was the ill-conceived notion that the interview rooms would stay packed with reporters regardless of what she does on the court. But with the loss to Larsson, Stephens will fall outside the top 25 and if 19-year-old Madison Keys wins her second round match on Thursday, she'll leapfrog Stephens to become the new No. 3 American behind the Williams sisters.