Sloane Stephens' loss at Wimbledon proves there is work to be done

Wednesday July 3rd, 2013

Sloane Stephens played well to get to the Wimbledon quarterfinals, but faltered in a crucial match.
Antoine Couvercelle/Icon SMI

WIMBLEDON, England -- It's okay, Sloane, the world will be telling her in the coming months. You're so young and talented and improving so fast: The chance will surely come round again.

And Sloane Stephens, great American hope, will flash that billion-dollar grin ("Best smile in women's tennis," says commentator Mary Carillo. "In terms of teeth? The Greatest. Clearly good home care...."), or maybe just default to the "whatever" pose that she has so often struck since her biting quotes about Serena Williams went public last Spring, and say, "Obviously disappointed," like she did after losing Tuesday night. "But I think I'm definitely moving forward."

And Stephens, 20, will be justified, of course. The last U.S. singles player to exit the 2013 Wimbledon Championships rose time and again on the game's big stages this year, backing up a semifinal showing in Melbourne with a fourth-round loss at Roland Garros and then, here, surviving a string of bruising tests to reach the quarterfinals before falling, 6-4, 7-5, to Marion Bartoli. But someday, if not now, this one is going to sting. Because few players, ever, have had a cleaner shot at tennis' biggest prize, at the breakthrough that makes careers, and the 17th-ranked Stephens cracked more than enough to let it slip away.

Consider: Come Thursday, Bartoli, Kirsten Flipkens, Agnieska Radwanska and Sabine Lisicki -- a final four more suited for Linz than London -- will take Centre Court in Wimbledon's two women's semi-finals. Had Stephens not been unnerved by a miserably-timed, first-set rain-delay, had she not lost 17 of the first 18 points on her serve after play resumed, had she changed tactics even a bit, it could easily be her playing Flipkens for a shot at the crown.

Flipkens? The 27-year old Belgian who, but a year ago, was recovering from life-threatening blood clots and a No. 262 ranking, has won one singles title -- just one more than Sloane -- in her pro career. And if Stephens had gotten past her? Pick 'em: This year, she already beat Serena. Neither of the possible final opponents is named Williams, Sharapova, Azarenka or even Petra Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon winner upended by flabbergasted Flipkens Tuesday, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

"It's a dream -- more than a dream -- coming true," Flipkens said. "There's no words."

Actually there are, but those spoken by U.S. TV rights holders probably aren't printable. For the moment the shaky men's field still boasts stars Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, but the first week ravaging of the women's draw all but ensured a no-name Thursday. That should make for delightful programming -- in the way that watching an obscure foreign film is delightful -- if aptly surreal. When fate conspires to make Poland -- with two men's quarterfinalists and a women's semi-finalist -- the world's premiere tennis nation, all the old metrics get tossed out the window.

"You know, tennis is kind of a crazy game," Bartoli said. "Now I am playing Kirsten Flipkens to be in the final of Wimbledon. So it's also very unexpected, but that's the magic of it."

Still, those concerned with American tennis are less intrigued these days by the "magic" of such one-off runs. Encouraging results this year -- especially by 18-year-old Madison Keys, who pushed No. 4 Radwanska to three sets in the third round here, and Stephens -- have inflated hopes for the post-Serena generation. Some believe Keys' big serve and forehand give her more upside, but Stephens' knack for performing at the highest level has made her today's flag-bearer.

"She likes the big moment: She knows how to get up for 'em," said commentator Mary Carillo during the two-hour, 20-minute rain delay that halted Stephens' showdown against Bartoli with her serving at 4-5, 40-all. "Coming into this match she had more errors than winners and she was still in the quarters: Not too many people can swing that. I like Madison's game, too; it's a whole different level. The Americans we've had the last several years have been grinders, so you admire their tenacity and fighting spirit. But these babes? Ka-boom! There's something nice about, Oh, I can decide this right now. I'm going to break open this point -- and hit this winner."

Stephens should have been plenty motivated. Aside from the $2.4 million champion's check, there was also the annoyingly appealing Bartoli's usual antics -- hopping endlessly foot-to-foot, swinging at endless imaginary balls -- and the fact that the Frenchwoman cannily worked Tuesday's afternoon shower, refused to play out the game to the end, so that Stephens would be returning under instant pressure.

But when the players retook the court at 5:57 p.m., with the Court 1 crowd roundly booing Bartoli, Stephens seemed far more uneasy. Like any athlete -- or human, for that matter -- pushed out of her comfort zone, she got tight, exposed some flaws. "She's a natural and that's just a god-kissed blessing, in terms of her easy power, especially off her forehand side," Carillo said. "She really needs to work on specific stuff -- footwork, court position. There're times when she's not reacting to her own good shots properly. You've created something? Now take advantage of it.

"Maria Sharapova said something so right: It's absolutely imperative that you have good coaching at that moment in your career. This is the swing moment, especially for someone like Sloane. She's got to be making adjustments and concentrating on areas of her game that will allow her to use those natural gifts to the maximum."

Stephens is coached by the USTA's David Nainkin, and said afterward that her work with him is "a secret". But her post-delay performance also revealed holes in need of filling: After dropping the first two points on her serve to cede the first set, Stephens all but gave away a 1-3 lead in the second, and the ever-churning Bartoli, a 2007 Wimbledon finalist, was more than happy to match strokes in a ground battle.

"Sloane's going to be in the top 10 or 12 now, but if she wants to be in the top four, she's really got to work on her first serve," said Donald Dell, the former Davis Cup captain and ATP founder whose agency represents Stephens, as he walked out after. "And I don't think Sloane did anything to break up the rhythm. Bartoli loved her pace; she didn't hurt her at all -- and Sloane didn't do anything to change it. It's easy to sit here and say this, but the No. 1 rule in tennis is, change that losing game. Lose the first set, and you're down 3-0? You've got to do something to change that."

Stephens didn't. Down the stretch Bartoli's serve proved nearly as fragile as her own, but all of it -- the conditions, the rain, the wait, the moment, Bartoli's relentless strokes -- ground down her resistance. Serving at 5-6 to stay in the match, Stephens all but went away; she was broken at love. She shook hands, walked off court, dismissed the loss as a "rough day" and declared herself happy with her Wimbledon showing.

"I probably could have given a little bit more," Stephens said. "I'm not going to dwell on it. I forget things easily. I think that's a good thing. I'm just going to go back and work hard and keep going."

If she can indeed forget, for now anyway, that might be a good thing. "The opportunity was so great," Dell said. "The draw was so good." But this wasn't to be the day that American tennis found its next savior; this wasn't the place. The U.S. Open looms. There's work to do yet.

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