Sloane Stephens, shown here at the Sony Open, burst into the spotlight after her upset victory over Serena Williams at the Australian Open in January. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Green clay wasn't the cure for Sloane Stephens' post-Australian Open slump.
The 20-year-old American won a mere two games in a 6-2, 6-0 loss to to Bethanie Mattek-Sands in her opening match at the Family Circle Cup. The defeat dropped Stephens to 2-5 since she made the semifinals of the Australian Open in January and left her on the verge of tears during the second set. Stephens struggled to find her rhythm and range in the chilly air, and Mattek-Sands, who played a WTA season-long three-hour, 42-minute match a day earlier, was committed to getting on and off the court quickly.
"I feel like I played very well," Mattek-Sands said after rolling in 57 minutes. "She's a great player. On top of that, I lost to her twice last year, so it was a little bit of a revenge match for me. But I really stuck to my game plan regardless of how she was going to play. I wanted to play aggressive. I wanted to make it shorter than yesterday, either way, win or lose."
Mattek-Sands advanced to the third round of a Premier-level tournament for the first time since 2011 and on the verge of breaking back into the top 100. She'll face another young American on Thursday, either Madison Keys or Grace Min.
As for Stephens, the loss seemed to serve as a wake-up call. After weeks of trying to brush off her early-round losses in the Middle East and Indian Wells, Stephens looked humbled by this one.
"I was disappointed with the way I was playing," a downbeat Stephens said after the match. "I was like, 'Oh, my God, this is terrible.' But obviously I really love clay and so to get out and not be able to play so well was obviously disappointing. But what can you do? Sometimes you're just going to not play so well, and she played a good match. So not really anything I could do."
Mattek-Sands sympathized with Stephens' slump.
"I think a big thing is not really thinking about it too much," she said. "I think sometimes you let it get in your head a little bit and you just have to go out there and trust your preparation. For any of us playing on the pro tour, we've been playing for 15, 20, 22 years. It's not like we can forget to hit a forehand or anything. Simplify it, figure out what the answers are, and don't think about what the problems are. Otherwise, you'll get pretty depressed."
It's been a crazy three months for Stephens, who's been thrust under the spotlight after beating an injured Serena Williams at the Australian Open to make her first Grand Slam semifinal. Perhaps no other American knows what that pressure feels like better than Melanie Oudin, whose miracle run to the U.S. Open quarterfinals in 2009 immediately created unreasonable expectations that she just couldn't live up to. Now ranked No. 86, Oudin says she's talked to Stephens about the crippling weight of expectation.
"I just told her I know exactly like how she feels," Oudin said. "I guess kind of the same thing kind of happened for us, and she told me, 'Yeah, I'm so glad that my Slam didn't happen in the States because it would have been like so crazy.' She was glad it happened in Australia."
Stephens admitted that the last three months have been overwhelming and tough. "But once I find my rhythm and find how I have to handle certain situations and things I have to do before a tournament to get focus and things that are kind of too overwhelming and that I can't do, I kind of have to refocus and try and do my best," she said.
Perhaps a change in continent away from the spotlight of the American tennis media will allow her the peace and quiet to find her bearings. Stephens said she was looking forward to heading to Europe for the clay season just so she could get away from her suddenly hectic life.
"I think here there's always too much to do," she said before the tournament. "There's always something you could be doing. In Europe, they're like, 'Sloane Stephens? Whatever.'"
Stephens will now prepare for the U.S. Fed Cup tie against Sweden later this month and then head to Europe, where she plans to play Madrid, Rome and Brussels before the French Open.
"I definitely have to shake it off and get ready for the red clay season," she said.