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Even in loss, Stephens shows why future is bright

January 24, 2013 11:16 AM
Sloane Stephens leaves Australia with newfound fame and a ranking in the world's Top 20.
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
 
MELBOURNE
—One month ago, U.S. teenager Sloane Stephens arrived in Australia merely hoping to show that all her diligent work in the offseason had been worth it and that she could play a consistent brand of tennis she hadn't always displayed in 2012.
 
After reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open, where she took a closer-than-it-looked 6-1 6-4 defeat to world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka on Thursday, Stephens left the grounds as the world’s 17th-ranked player and as one that, health allowing, will surely have a major influence on the tour in the next decade.
 
Stephens did not play her best match on a hot day against Azarenka, but it might have been too much to ask her to back up a shocking upset of 15-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams with another stunner over the defending champion—and under 24 hours later, no less.
 
She’s a tough girl with a world-class game, but she still has growing to do. However, the WTA’s top players know this: Sloane Stephens is a player to watch.
 
"Stirring ’em up. Gotta keep them on their toes," Stephens said to a small group of U.S. reporters after her defeat. "I guess I have to be doing something right. Got all these things happening."
 
Had Azarenka not taken a 10-minute medical timeout after blowing five match points in the ninth game of the second set, Stephens may have been able to climb back in the contest. But she never moved from her chair while waiting for Azarenka to return, and after she got down 4-5, she did not have a great service game and was broken to lose the match.
 
"I was thinking about the service game," she said of her time spent waiting. "Nothing too mind-boggling. I’ve had a lot of medical timeouts the last week, so I just kind of did the same thing. Just kind of sit there, look and see what [USTA coach] David [Nainkin] was doing. I do the same thing all the time. I don’t get up and serve, none of that."
 
Stephens said Azarenka's medical timeout had nothing to do with why she lost, saying, "I love Vika, and we share the same agent. We actually are pretty good friends. I'm sure I'll see her, and we'll talk about it."
 
The 19-year-old took it to Serena when she needed to in the quarterfinals but allowed the steady and hard-hitting Azarenka to consistently take it to her in the semis. By the time she dug into the match, it was too late. Perhaps in her next big tournament it will be different, and considering that she won 10 of her 13 matches in Australia, there’s no reason to think she will be mentally folding anytime soon.
 
"Next time it will be different because I won’t be nervous about missing," she said. "I’ll just go out and play my game, try to mix it up and stay within myself. Sometimes it’s just not your day, it’s not meant to be, and today it just wasn’t supposed to happen. You just have to take it and learn from it and, hopefully, next time go out there and give them hell."
 
Stephens did not have any "Oh wow" moments before the semifinals. She made a huge splash in the Australian press, at home and possibly across the globe after she beat Serena, but it was a short period between that win and when she went on court against Azarenka, so she didn’t have time to come to terms with her newfound celebrity status.
 
But she realizes that had it been the US Open where she reached the semis, her star would have lit up the sky,
 
"It would be like, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to be in Vogue now.’ It would be just a whole other decision," she said. "But this is so far from home. Mom’s not here. It’s just me and David, so it’s just different. But still it’s a great week making the semifinals."
 
Stephens will now head to her Los Angeles home to hang out with her family and friends. She has made herself available for the U.S.’s Fed Cup tie against Italy in Rimini, Feb. 9-10, and will cross the pond that week if she’s selected to the team. She’ll then play Doha, Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami.
 
She doesn't expect any major life changes ahead, even though she’s already had a major impact on the tennis circuit.
 
"Nothing changes. I’m still the same person," she said. "I’m going to go to one of my hairstylists’ wedding on Saturday. So just keep the same thing going."
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To learn more about up-and-coming American players and everything else you need to know about America’s Grand Slam, click here to sign up for the exclusive US Open newsletter.
 
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For more coverage of American players at the 2013 Australian Open, see:
 
2013 Australian Open: Sloane Stephens Interview
Stephens believes, shocks Serena to reach Aussie semis
 

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