Sloane Stephens struggles after Australian Open breakthrough

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Sloane Stephens is 2-4 since the Australian Open, where she made the semifinals. (Alan Diaz/AP)

Sloane Stephens

It says much about the expectations that weigh on Sloane Stephens, who is 20 and only recently became a top-20 player, that a three-set loss to fourth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska feels like a disappointment. Yet that's where we are after a 4-6, 6-2, 6-0 defeat Monday.

Losing to Radwanska wasn't surprising in and of itself. Radwanska is a Wimbledon finalist and the best player in the world outside the WTA's Big Three. But the match was a microcosm of Stephens' year. She played a strong first set and took advantage of a slow start from Radwanska, blasting winners and overwhelming the Pole with power and movement. But after blowing a 40-15 lead and failing to hold her serve at 2-3 in the second, Stephens just went away. Her body language was blatantly negative from that point forward. She threw up her hands in exasperation after errors, tossed her racket to the ground and glared at her box with anger and resignation.

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A dream two weeks at the Australian Open launched Stephens into the top 20 and cranked up the hype machine, but she hasn't come close to capitalizing on any momentum or confidence. After making the semifinals in Melbourne by beating Serena Williams -- an injured Williams, but hey, that still counts -- Stephens automatically became a woman to watch. CNN and Ellen DeGeneres called, and her Twitter following shot through the roof. By all accounts, Stephens looked to be enjoying the attention and the opportunities.

But the flip side of that success is what happens when you can't deliver on the court. The last two months after the Australian Open have been a forgettable time for the young American. She withdrew from Fed Cup at the beginning of February with an abdominal injury and then opted to play two Premier tournaments, in Doha and Dubai, walking away with only one match win. Returning to North America hasn't helped, either. She lost in her opening round in Indian Wells and struggled to get past Olga Govortsova in three sets in her first match in Miami before benefiting from a walkover from Venus Williams. Then came this disappointing loss to Radwanska.

When it came time to face the press after the match, she had already collapsed into a defensive shell.

"I mean, just a rough time," Stephens said. "There's no specific thing that I'd say has happened or is not happening, but I don't think it really matters.

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"I'm [No.] 16 in the world. I can lose in the first round the next two months and I probably would still be top 30. I'm not really too concerned about winning or losing or any of that, I don't think. My life has changed, yeah, but I wouldn't say I'm in a panic or anything."

It's odd to hear a professional athlete actually say she's not concerned with winning or losing. Being concerned with winning or losing is kind of your job, and in tennis, where players aren't paid by multiyear contracts or salary, winning is even more of a concern. Win, and you get rankings points and cash. Lose, and you don't. There's no welfare state in tennis and therefore little tolerance for dry spells. It's one of the cruel realities of the sport.

But having interviewed Stephens and observed her in news conferences, I suspect her words are more empty than truthful, placeholders used to get the hounding reporters off her back and move on. Until January, Stephens wasn't a player regularly called into press after every loss and asked to articulate her disappointment. Last year, a first-round loss would barely register a blip. Stephens was in that perfect honeymoon stage of her career, where losses were forgiven and every win, even a marginal one, was celebrated. Now she's expected to win. That takes some getting used to.

Sloane Stephens saw her ranking rise from No. 38 to No. 16 this year. (Alan Diaz/AP)

Sloane Stephens

The truth is the expectation that Stephens is supposed to challenge deep into tournaments and beat other top-20 players regularly is off the mark. Yes, she made a Grand Slam semifinal and beat Serena. But let's be brutally honest here. Stephens took advantage of a draw that broke wide open when Laura Robson beat Petra Kvitova in the second round and headed into her quarterfinal showdown with Serena having faced no one in the top 40. In the semifinals, she lost the first set 6-3 before Serena aggravated a back injury and was unable to play her best. Once into the semifinals against Victoria Azarenka, Stephens dropped the first set 6-1 and probably would have been brushed off the court had Azarenka not had a panic attack when she tried to close out the match.

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None of this is meant to take anything away from Stephens, who is the best young raw talent in the game and already one of the best athletes in women's tennis. It simply shows that in our quest to find the next star, sometimes we overlook a few things. Those "few things" would include the fact that Stephens, who turned pro in 2009,  has yet to make a WTA final. She never won a junior Slam singles title. Just a year ago, she was battling it out in Miami qualifying. Since the Australian Open, she is 2-4 with three losses to players ranked outside the top 20. Stephens' best results have been at the Slams, which is a career-boosting trait. She's already made the third round or better at all four majors. All that is to say, she's still learning how to replicate that success on the smaller stages. That will take time.

So what's next for Stephens? She goes next week to the green clay at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C., where she'll join a field that includes both the Williams sisters, Sam Stosur and Sara Errani, before heading to Europe to get reacquainted with the red clay. Historically, clay has been her best surface. She made the semifinals of the French Open junior tournament in 2009; won an ITF event in Italy in 2011; and, before this year, her best Slam result was making the fourth round of last year's French Open, losing to Stosur.

Her game is perfectly suited to clay. Not unlike 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Stephens is blessed with the athletic ability that allows her to move well on the surface to frustrate the big hitters, and the natural power that allows her to hit through the court to beat the grinders. Last year, she played a heavy clay schedule of Charleston, Barcelona, Estoril, Madrid, Rome, Strasbourg and the French Open. It remains to be seen if she intends to do the same this year. It might do her confidence a world of good to drop down and play some of the lower-level events. Her entries since the Australian Open have been the tour's four biggest events of the last two months. Dropping out of the spotlight and stringing together some wins could be exactly what she needs right now.

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