What happens in Paris stays in Paris. At the very least, it didn’t cross the English Channel for Sloane Stephens.
Donna Vekic thumped the French Open finalist and U.S. Open champion in a lopsided opening-round match at Wimbledon on Monday, 6-1, 6-3.
Stephens, who reportedly arrived in London late last week, was nowhere near top form.
She had not played any warm-up tournaments on grass and fought with the surface from start to finish against Vekic, something no player can afford to do. Her shot selection was questionable. Her timing on the ball was erratic. An ability to turn around a failing situation evaded her. But, most glaringly, Stephens’ footwork was nearly nonexistent. This asset, one of her best, was shockingly the one Vekic used to overturn the expected outcome.
“My adjustment steps were not there,” Stephens said, according to Bill Simons of Inside Tennis on Twitter.
Vekic, who is ranked number 55, outshone Stephens in almost every category except double faults — she struck 9 — during the 70-minute match.
The 22-year-old Croatian’s returns on first and second serves showed a keen eye and honed anticipation. She won 53 percent of points on first-serve returns and 52 on second-serve returns. The quickness with which the ball came at Stephens, plus her lack of awareness of the court surface’s nuances, left her flat-footed, a shocking reality for an elite player.
Vekic, though, demonstrated necessary and critical consistency throughout the encounter, in contrast to her opponent. Even when Stephens stepped up to the ball and struck it with all the vigor we’ve witnessed throughout her season, her consistency failed to hold.
“Basic shots are becoming difficult,” a commentator said about Stephens on ESPN.
Vekic showed talent for the lawns of Wimbledon last year, when she battled Johanna Konta of Great Britain to a tearful 7-6(4), 4-6, 10-8 loss in the second round. Vekic also made the final in Nottingham last year and the semifinals at that tournament just a few weeks ago.
The loss from Stephens adds to speculation about her ability to consistently perform well at Grand Slam tournaments. After winning the U.S. Open, she lost in the first round of the Australian Open in January. To then become the finalist at Roland Garros was a catapult for her expectations. But now the trend is cemented, with this unenthusiastic loss on day one of Wimbledon.
“The result also continues the Roland Garros runner-up’s pattern of inconsistent major results,” the WTA reported. “With her U.S. Open title and French Open final now punctuated by three first-round exits at Grand Slams — taking her total of opening losses at majors to seven in the past five years.”
The irony and, perhaps, a conspiracy theory thicken when considering Stephens lost in round one of Wimbledon last year to compatriot Alison Riske, who at the time was ranked number 46. However, Stephens had just returned to the tour after a left foot injury sidelined her for 11 months. Coming to Wimbledon then, she was ranked number 336.
“[I] had no points to defend,” Stephens said, per Simons on Twitter. “I didn’t play my absolute best. Have to move on and get ready for hardcourt season.”
But since the grass-court season is so short, maybe Stephens intended to “skip” it completely, acting throughout her loss Monday in a way which suggested as much.
In her press conference, Stephens implied that everyone loses and sometimes people overreact to individual match outcomes.
“I don’t want to be in here with you guys about losing first round Wimbledon. Life goes on. If I do everything possible I will get good results. I am not going to go and cry about the loss,” Stephens said.
A couple years ago, Stephens was a statue of misery, not knowing if she wanted a career in tennis and not caring if her ranking reached into the 900s. With her recent rise to number four in the world, though, and her solid relationship with coach Kamau Murray, that thread disappeared from the radar.
Putting all the facts and speculation aside, Vekic should be energized. This was her first win over a top-five player. Wednesday she will face Victoria Kuzmova or Rebecca Peterson.
Some of Vekic’s spirited offense and defense — plus what looked like improved movement — should be attributed to a new coaching relationship with Torben Beltz, who enjoyed a lengthy and successful coaching tenure with former number-one player Angelique Kerber.
Another bright spot for Vekic: Andrea Petkovic defeated Shuai Zhang, who was seeded number 31, on Monday, meaning two seeds from that part of the draw are out of both players’ paths. Nearby, Sorana Cirstea defeated 2017 Wimbledon semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova, 7-5, 6-3.
Expecting the unexpected at Majors should be a trend. Donna Vekic hopes to take advantage this fortnight at Wimbledon.
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