Speaking to USA Today this month, American legend Chris Evert talked about Sloane Stephen's enormous potential.
“She’s a diamond in the rough,” said Evert, the 18-time grand slam tournament winner. “We’ve seen only three-fourths of her ability. I’m still waiting for her to wake up and reveal the whole Sloane Stephens body of work.”
Evert is not alone. The tennis world is waiting as well, but Stephens has struggled to match the hype, or expectations, that followed her win over an injured Serena Williams at last year’s Australian Open. She has sparkled occasionally but her journey over the past 14 months has generally been dismal.
In 23 tournaments since her celebrated quarter-final win over Williams in Melbourne, Stephens has lost in the first or second round nine times and has failed to go beyond the quarter-finals in any. Her win-loss record for 2014 is an ordinary 9-6 and the American, who celebrated her 21st birthday last Thursday, is a disappointing No 27 on the Road to Singapore rankings.
With Paul Annacone, former coach to Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, guiding her since November, Stephens had made a good start to the year, reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open before losing to Victoria Azarenka. First-round exits followed at Doha and Dubai but then she bounced back to reach the last-eight at Indian Wells.
But then, as in the past when her consistency has been her greatest drawback, Stephens lasted only 55 minutes on court against Caroline Wozniacki in the third round at Miami on Sunday, committing 37 unforced errors and winning only 26 points as she was blown away 6-1, 6-0.
“It was just straight-up bad,” Stephens said. “I have been playing good, practising good. Everything has been good. Just kind of a disappointing night for me. It’s just something – it just happened. I couldn’t fight my way out of it.”
That has happened too often in the past. Too many times, Stephens has looked weak mentally and that perhaps explains why, despite her talents, she is yet to reach a final in 57 main draw appearances on the WTA Tour.
“I haven’t seen that sense of urgency and win-at-all-costs look that she eventually has to have if she’s going to be a top player,” Evert said.
She does seem to have that desire at the grand slam events, where she has reached the last 16 or better in five consecutive appearances.
In 2013, she was one of only three players – alongside Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska – to reach the last 16 at all four majors.
She must bring that attitude to the other events or risk being remembered as a one-match wonder.