Sloane Stephens was hailed as the future of American women’s tennis after her victory over Serena Williams and run to the semi-finals of last year’s Australian Open, but the 21-year-old from Florida is rapidly being overtaken by a younger generation.
While American teenagers such as Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend and even 15-year-old Catherine Bellis have been making their breakthroughs, Stephens’ faltering career took a turn for the worse here yesterday when she was beaten by Johanna Larsson, a 26-year-old Swede playing in the second round of the US Open for the first time.
Larsson, the world No 96, won 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 after two hours and 13 minutes. Stephens, who lost in the first round at Wimbledon and is set to tumble from her current position at No 24 in the world rankings, made 63 unforced errors. Larsson doggedly stuck to her task, but the outcome was decided by the American’s mistakes rather than the Swede’s excellence.
It has been a tough year for Stephens, who was at a career-high No 11 in the world rankings only 10 months ago. Paul Annacone, who previously worked with Pete Sampras, Tim Henman and Roger Federer, lasted only eight months as her coach and was replaced this summer by Thomas Hogstedt, who worked with Maria Sharapova until last summer.
“I haven’t had that great a season, but I’m not going to dwell on it,” Stephens said afterwards. “Everyone has their ups and downs. Everyone goes through times like this.”
Townsend, whose talent was noted by Andy Murray earlier in the summer, was beaten 6-3, 6-1 by Williams on Tuesday, but the world No 1 described her 18-year-old opponent as “incredibly talented”. Williams said that women’s tennis in the United States had “an amazing future” given the current crop of young players.
Keys, aged 19, won her first title on the main tour at Eastbourne in June. With her big-hitting game the world No 27 is one of the most exciting prospects this side of the Atlantic, as she showed with her 6-0, 6-3 first-round demolition of Australia’s Jarmila Gajdosova. Keys dropped only six points on her serve in the whole match.
Bellis, who turned 15 in April, became the youngest player to win a match at the US Open since Anna Kournikova in 1996 when she knocked out Dominika Cibulkova, the world No 12 and this year’s Australian Open runner-up. Bellis, who won 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 to earn a second-round meeting with Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas, will be unable to claim her prize money of $60,000 (about £36,000) because she is still an amateur.
Having previously played only four senior tournaments – all of them on the lower-tier International Tennis Federation circuit – Bellis arrived here ranked No 1,208 in the world. She was given a wild card after becoming the youngest player since Lindsay Davenport in 1991 to win the US Girls’ 18s National Championship.
“I went into the match thinking it was going to be such a great experience,” Bellis said afterwards. “But I never thought I would come out on top winning. I’m still in shock.”
Agnieszka Radwanska, the No 4 seed, became the highest-ranked player to go out of the tournament when she was beaten 6-3, 6-4 by China’s Peng Shuai. Radwanska, a semi-finalist at the Australian Open in January, won the Montreal tournament in the build-up to New York.
After a three-day break Murray will play his second-round match today against Germany’s Matthias Bachinger in the first match of the evening session in Arthur Ashe Stadium at about 7pm (midnight BST). Murray, who suffered severe cramping in his opening victory over Robin Haase, practised with Ross Hutchins, the British Davis Cup doubles player, in the early afternoon yesterday as the temperature reached 31C on another hot and humid day.