American Sloane Stephens
Sharapova suffered an early defeat at Wimbledon, and a hip-injury has kept her off the WTA Tour for weeks. Many suspect Sharapova has taken on the former ATP firecracker to help coach her to a victory against her only hurdle on the WTA, Serena Williams.
This week, the tier-I premier-level event would be the first time to see any additions or strategies that Connors may have brought to the Russian's game.
However, where Sharapova and Connors share intensity and intimidation, 20-year-old American Sloane Stephens proved to be a formidable opponent with a refreshing brand of self-belief and steadiness.
Heading into their fourth all-time meeting, Sharapova dominated the head-to-head 3-0. In fact, Stephens had never even won a single set off of the overpowering Russian.
Initially it seemed to indicate the expected result, as Sharapova served exceptionally and won 6-2 in the first set. The pace of the ground strokes Stephens faced caused her to committ a high number of errors, and the second-serve return of Sharapova was over 80 percent.
The second set saw an early brake for Stephens, as she placed her first serves with more speed and capitalized off of uncharacteristic errors from the Sharapova forehand. She would hold to 3-0, before Sharapova would fight back and brake for 3-1. Sharapova would commit five double faults in the second set, and a more aggressive Stephens would win a tight tiebreaker 7-4.
The final set would be the true test of Sharpova's mental toughness. Media pressure regarding her recent coaching change, an only recently healed hip injury and a fiery young opponent who was riding a wave of crowd support and confidence would test the fortitude of the 2006 U.S. Open champion.
With nothing to lose, Stephens cranked up the power on her return of server, dictated with her forehand and continued to exploit Sharapova's movement. With the support of the Midwest crowd, Stephens would steadily chip away at the power game of her opponent.
Stephens would boost her first-serve winning percentage to 71, compared to Sharapova's 68 percent. The American raised her second-serve winning percentage to 46. With one more ace (5-4), and one fewer double fault (6-7), the better server would eventually prevail.
Although Stephens struggled to close the match, committing three double faults in the final game at 5-4, she displayed the maturity of a future champion and won the match after two-and-a-half hours of battle.
The victory is Sloane's second win over a top-10 player, after having defeated Williams in three sets at this year's Australian Open.
After victories this year over legends Williams and Sharapova, and a Grand Slam semifinal and quarterfinal appearance, Stephens could prove to be a threatening underdog against the top players at this year's U.S. Open.
Although the direction may be unclear as of yet for the coaching partnership of Sharapova and Connors, the trajectory for Stephens is clear—it's upward.