Soul of the US Open: Brutal Round Two Leaves Sloane Stephens

Sloane Stephens of the United States returns a shot to Johanna Larsson of Sweden during her women’s singles second round match on Day Three of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 27, 2014 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City

*Two questions have already been answered at this year’s US Open: Will Donald Young break his performance drought and go deep in the tournament? No; bounced in first round.

Will Sloane Stephens break HER recent performance drought and live up to expectations? No; bounced in the second round along with big-hitting compatriot Madison Keys.

The latter questions bears a little discussion, though, since expectations for Young fizzled years ago and Keys is still in the early stages of building a name for herself. She was supposed to be the next Serena Williams, right?

With that, what’s troubling Sloane Stephens’ game?

She’s sure not gonna help in figuring it out. After a puzzling loss to Johanna Larsson in the second round of the US Open, on Arthur Ashe court, she was very tight lipped in her presser. Obviously agitated, she was short with her answers and defiantly adamant that the loss was “just a little speed bump” and she just “needs to keep working hard.”

Meanwhile her peers are beginning to pass her by.

Sloane played a topsy turvy first set in the match she ultimately lost, but was able to turn things around and take it, 7-5 when Larsson was up 5-4, but failed to serve it out. The erratic play could’ve been attributed to the heat, as it was close to 100 degree on court, but when asked if the heat was a factor, she replied with a simple, “no.”

She started off the second set by holding serve, indicating that she had found her groove and was poised to run away with the rest of the match, but the scripts got mixed up. Instead of going for her shots and playing inside the baseline, Stephens became reactive, which is a good way to lose a match. Larsson was able to break down her game from that point on with consistency and deep hitting, drawing error after error from the usually dominant American. Stephens seemed to lose her resolve and faded away. She tumbled out of the tournament 7-5,4-6,2-6.

Stephens is known for making deep runs at majors, even taking out a *granted* hobbled Serena Williams in Australia a couple of years back, but her latest string of Grand Slam results have been dismal in comparison. She lost in the early rounds in Australia and Wimbledon and managed the only the 4th round at the French Open … now round two in New York. She changed coaches after Wimbledon, dropping Paul Annacone and picking up Maria Sharapova’s, Caroline Wozniacki’s and Li Na’s former coach, Thomas Hogstedt, but it doesn’t seem to be making a difference. It’s too early to say that her career is on the decline, but it’s fair to say that her 2014 season has been a bust – though she begs to differ:

“There is a lot of the year left. There is probably like seven more tournaments after that. It’s far from over.”

Sloane’s reputation for not getting up for regular tour tournaments was already common opinion, but expectations of the young American hopeful at Majors are now even beginning to slip.

Another unexpected early departure from the tournament was Poland’s Agniezska Radwanska. She surprisingly lost on Armstrong to China’s Peng Shua. The world no. 4 has never done extremely well at the US Open, but expectations are well beyond a second round exit. She was in the same part of the draw as Sloane Stephens, leaving that section wide open now for a dark horse like Lucie Safarova, Angelique Kerber or Jelena Jankovic to gallop into week two.

Additionally, Sam Stosur (to Kai Kanepi, 6-3,3-6,6-7), Ana Ivanovic  (to K. Pliskova, 5-7,4-6) – both in Serena’s part of the draw and one’s who normally trouble her, and Madison Keys (to A. Krunic, 6-7,6-2,5-7)  all went down in flames on Thursday – and it wasn’t even the hottest day of the tournament so far. It WAS windy and those players who typically use power and finding the lines to get them through , such as the fallen trio, were SOL on the blustery and bloody Thursday.

Conversely, Venus Williams and Serena Williams both skated their way into round 2, comprehensively beating Switzerland’s Timea Bacsinszky and fellow American Vania King respectively on Ashe court.

Venus played her round two match on Wednesday night, with very pleasant temperatures and to a packed stadium. The conditions were just right for her to call upon her all court game in dispatching her otherwise solid opponent. She easily won the match, in vintage form, 6-1,6-4.

Serena played her round two match on Thursday afternoon, and though she struggled with her serve in the swirling wind, she all but completely shut King out, smothering her with power, winning the match at 6-1,6-0.

On the doubles front, while longtime fan Gladys Knight looked on from the stands, the Williams sisters were challenged by the no. 7 seeds and 2014 Wimbledon finalists, Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic, in their first round match. The first two hard fought sets went to a tiebreaker, but in the third, the sisters found their groove and ran away with the match. Serena tossed in an unusual amount of double faults during the match, when it really mattered, she was able to find her powerful serve and assist Venus, the steadier of the two, with securing the win, 7-6 (0), 6-7 (4), 6-1.

The seedings on the women’s side have been decimated at Flushing, and it’s only the second round. The men, however are performing true to form, with no real upsets to mention. Round three play begins on Friday.

For full results click here.

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