NEW YORK -- Sloane Stephens' slump continued on Wednesday, as the 21-year-old American lost to No. 96 Johanna Larsson 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 in the second round of the U.S. Open. Stephens led 7-5, 3-0 and earned a break advantage in the final set at 2-0, but couldn't close the match. She hit 36 winners and 63 unforced errors, while Larsson wisely kept things simple by forcing Stephens to hit as many balls as possible. The Swede, who is into the third round of the U.S. Open for just the second time in her career, hit 11 winners and 30 unforced errors.
Three thoughts on Stephens' early exit:
Stephens' slump continues: Stephens was given a lot of slack for her poor performance outside the majors over the last two years because she was young, talented and when the biggest tournaments rolled around, she invariably delivered. Even with Wednesday afternoon's loss, she is 32-14 at the Slams while tallying a pedestrian 58-57 mark at all other tournaments. It was easy to believe that she was just a bit match player, and really, wouldn't you rather have that than the week-in week-out grinder? But Stephens hasn't been doing much winning of any kind over the last two months. Her streak of making the second week at six consecutive Slams ended with a first round loss to Maria Kirilenko at Wimbledon. After Wednesday's results, she's lost before the third round of the U.S. Open for the first time in her career.
"I haven't had that great of a season," she said in a press conference after the match, eyes noticeably wet with a few tears. "I'm not going to dwell on it. There is always room for improvement. Everyone has their ups and downs. Everyone goes through times like this. I'm not the first person and won't be the last. I'm looking forward to the next tournament. And that's all I can really do, just look forward."
Don't bother trying to get any insight from Stephens: She blamed her inability to close out the match on getting "shaky" in the second set and gave credit to Larsson for her play in the third. But Larsson didn't force Stephens to hit 63 unforced errors -- that's essentially the definition of the stat: when an error in a service or return shot cannot be attributed to any factor other than poor judgment and execution. When things got tough on Wednesday and Larsson made a charge, Stephens was never able to tap into any sort of positive emotion to turn things around.
Was it the occasion of playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium? That's hard to believe given the relatively empty stadium for the first match of the day and the fact that she's played in front of bigger, more vocal crowds before. She wasn't playing a particularly intimidating opponent, either. Larsson is a solid player but she lacks any significant weapons. She has spent most of her season playing on the ITF circuit and Stephens should have handled her easily. What about the heat? Temperatures hit the upper 80s on Wednesday afternoon, but Stephens dismissed that as a factor.
The reason for Stephens' poor performance may just be Stephens herself. Much of the discussion surrounding her career and her play has centered around a simple question: Does she want it? Does she enjoy swinging a tennis racket and taking the practice court day in and day out, traveling the world to play this game that requires an "eat what you kill" mentality? Or does she want it so much that she shuts down to protect herself from feeling devastated after losses?
The speculation will continue from here because if you ask her to explain it, all you get are empty clichés: Just got to work harder. Just have fun on the court. Just have to work my way through it. Stephens repeated the phrases over and over. "I'm sure you guys will be here every tournament to see me get through it. So welcome and I'm glad you guys are along for the ride," she said in a press conference after the match. The sarcasm was evident, as was the ill-conceived notion that the interview rooms would stay packed with reporters regardless of what she does on the court. But with the loss to Larsson, Stephens will fall outside the top 25 and if 19-year-old Madison Keys wins her second round match on Thursday, she'll leapfrog Stephens to become the new No. 3 American behind the Williams sisters.
This was a big opportunity lost: Stephens was drawn into the weakest quarter of the draw and that section got even weaker after fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska lost 6-3, 6-4 to Peng Shuai in the second round. The top seeds remaining in the quarter are now Angelique Kerber, Jelena Janovic, Lucie Safarova, and Roberta Vinci.