Success at non-Grand Slam events proves elusive for Sloane Stephens

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Sloane Stephens, the second seed, lost her first match at the Citi Open. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Sloane Stephens

In her first tournament since Wimbledon, Sloane Stephens lost to 88th-ranked Olga Puchkova 7-5, 6-3 in the first round of the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., on Monday night. The 20-year-old American admitted that she was rusty after a three-week break.

“Leading up [to the match], I didn’t practice that great,” Stephens told reporters. “I just wasn’t feeling the ball that well [on Monday]. Sometimes you just have tough days like that. [It was] unfortunate that it came today and I couldn’t really get it together.”

The early loss not only puts a snag in Stephens' preparation for the U.S. Open but also means another week without achieving an important career milestone. Despite her consistent success at Grand Slam tournaments -- she's made the fourth round or better at the first three this year -- the 15th-ranked Stephens has yet to make a WTA final. She's the only player in the top 30 who hasn't done so, going 0-4 in semifinals.

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Stephens is 12-3 at the Slams this year but only 11-12 everywhere else. Seeded No. 2 this week, she had a great chance to finally make her first final and build some momentum before moving on to tournaments with deeper fields in Toronto and Cincinnati, where Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova will make their returns to the North American hard courts. The puzzling early-round losses at the WTA's lower-level tournaments don't seem to bother Stephens that much.

“Everyone says its a bad thing," Stephens said, when asked the difference between her performance at the majors compared to other tournaments, "but I’m like, isn’t that the point?”

In 11 non-major tournaments this year, she's lost to a player ranked below her eight times. The story is completely different at the Slams, where she's taken advantage of favorable draws and beaten the players she's supposed to beat. At the Australian Open, she didn't face a top-40 player until the quarterfinals. Her three victories at the French Open were against opponents ranked outside the top 90. At Wimbledon, aside from her first-round match against 25th-ranked Jamie Hampton (who, despite her top-32 ranking, was unseeded), Stephens marched to the quarterfinals without meeting a top-60 player.

Her three Slam losses this year have come to Victoria Azarenka (Australian Open), Maria Sharapova (French Open) and Marion Bartoli (Wimbledon), all in straight sets. But even that record highlights another surprising aspect of her young résumé. Stephens has only one career victory against a top-10 player, her three-set win over an injured Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open this year.

“Some of the things I’ve accomplished have been amazing, but I still have a ways to go," she told The Washington Post. "A long ways to go."

Stephens seems to be steeling herself for the pressure that may come when the U.S. Open kicks off in less than a month. In her last U.S. tournament before this week, she was blitzed 6-2, 6-0 by Bethanie Mattek-Sands in her first match at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C., in April. Stephens lamented the attention she receives in the States and looked forward to escaping it all in Europe. "In Europe, they’re like, ‘Sloane Stephens? Whatever,'" she said then.

The European swing couldn't have come at a better time. She was in Madrid when her controversial comments about Williams became public, and aside from reaching out to Williams to apologize, she was able to avoid much of the media firestorm. After losing a very winnable match against Bartoli at Wimbledon, Stephens was already preparing herself for her return home.

"It's obviously definitely tough in the States," she said at Wimbledon. "It's much tougher than it is in Europe, because not that they don't care about me here, but it's low key here. It's definitely going to be tough going back. But I'm excited. I don't know, maybe I'll talk to Laura [Robson] and see how she feels about playing [in Britain]."

But the Stateside scrutiny will be nowhere near what Robson has to deal with in Britain, where she is the top player in a country starved for tennis success. In America, Stephens is sharing the spotlight with Williams, who will return to New York as the defending U.S. Open champion, and an army of talented and charismatic American women who are trying to chase her down in the rankings, such as Hampton, Madison Keys and Varvara Lepchenko. Stephens has not made it past the third round of the U.S. Open in two appearances but will go into the tournament as a seed for the first time, giving her some protection early in the draw.

Regardless, Stephens is already feeling the weight of expectation to make the second week in New York.