Sloane Stephens' struggles in non-Grand Slam tournaments continue. The 20-year-old American, ranked No. 18, lost to Petra Cetkovska, a 134th-ranked qualifier, 7-5, 6-1 in the first round of the Qatar Open on Monday. This was Stephens' first match since the Australian Open, where she lost to Victoria Azarenka in the fourth round.
Stephens skipped last weekend's U.S. Fed Cup tie in Cleveland, informing captain Mary Joe Fernandez that she had a wrist injury. When asked about the difficulty of fielding a team the week before Doha, Fernandez seemed genuinely surprised to hear Stephens was in the draw.
"Are you sure Sloane is in Doha?" Fernandez asked. "She had a wrist injury."
Stephens has always struggled when playing Cetkovska, and Monday wasn't any different. She didn't have any snap on her serve (Stephens didn't record an ace), and Cetkovska feasted on her forehand, breaking it down to earn errors.
Stephens lost the first nine points of the match, but rallied from a 1-4 deficit to get back on serve before losing the first set 7-5. Her negative attitude left the TennisTV commentary team of Robbie Koenig, Jason Goodall and Claire Wood scratching their heads.
"Sometimes I look at Sloane Stephens and I think, Is she really enjoying being out there?" Wood said. "Is she loving the challenge? Does she want to be playing at this level? It just isn't always obvious that she's enjoying it."
She fired exasperated looks at hitting partner Andrew Fitzpatrick (new coach Paul Annacone did not accompany her to Doha) after nearly every lost point, and Goodall noted how she was looking for excuses and not taking responsibility for her game. This isn't the first time Stephens has been visibly negative in a match, but she often snaps out of it. Not this time.
"Every time she misses a serve, the look that she gives her coach is 'I told you so. I told you I wasn't serving well,'" Goodall said. "And that's the completely wrong attitude. You've got to work it out ... not look at the coach and say, 'I told you I was serving rubbish.'"
In the second set, Stephens fell behind 4-1 again and played a terrible final two games to lose the match. She finished with 37 unforced errors to 20 winners, compared to Cetkovska's relatively clean sheet of 18 unforced errors to 17 winners.
Stephens is now on a three-match losing streak in the Middle East, after losing to Klara Zakopalova and Sorana Cirstea last year.
"Sometimes a player does need a helping hand to get a little more motivated in these situations, but this isn't the first time we've seen this as far as Sloane is concerned," Goodall said. "You can't always be telling your player they need to get motivated, they need to get pumped, that they need to get up for the match. ... It's a big event, this."
The good news for Stephens is she has about 150 points to defend from now until the Italian Open in May, which gives her some breathing room in the rankings and time -- should she need it -- to heal her ailing wrist before a demanding stretch on clay and grass. But for now it's on to the next stop: Stephens' next tournament is the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, which begin next Monday. This post has been updated.