Sloane Stephens had a chance on Monday to make it to her first French Open quarterfinal and get her first top-10 win of the season. Instead, the last remaining American in singles fell to Romanian Simona Halep, who at No. 4 is currently the top-ranked woman in the draw, 6-4, 6-3.
Just like that, Stephens lost yet another chance to prove that she's ready to be considered in the top echelon of talent on the WTA.
Stephens is currently ranked No. 19 in the world and is the only player in the WTA to make the second week of the last six majors. Of those six, she's made one semifinal (2013 Australian Open) and one quarterfinal (2013 Wimbledon). Tom Perrotta of The Wall Street Journal dug into Stephens' success at the majors:
On the sport’s biggest stages, Stephens always plays to her rank. She is 25-0, including her three victories so far in Paris, against opponents ranked lower than her at the four major tournaments, according to wtatennis.com. That compares to 36-25 (.590) against lower-ranked opponents outside the majors.
Since Stephens lost to her first ever match in a Slam in 2011, all of her Grand Slam losses have come against players ranked inside the top 20, and all of those players have either reached a Grand Slam final or won a Grand Slam title. In her last five majors, Stephens has lost to either the first- or second-ranked player in the world.
The 21-year-old's consistency in the majors is indeed something to be lauded. However, that success is not reflected in non-majors—you know, the other 20 tournaments she plays every year.
Stephens has drawn the ire of the tennis community frequently over the past year with her nonchalant attitude toward the smaller tournaments. She is one of only two players in the top 40 to never make a single WTA final (the other is fellow young American Madison Keys), and her consistent inability to show up when Grand Slam trophies aren't on the line is alarming.
At the Family Circle Cup in Charleston in April, Stephens crashed out to another up-and-comer, Elina Svitolina, in the second round. In the press conference that I attended afterwards, she was upbeat and said she wasn't in a hurry right now: "I’m in the top 20 and I’m still really young and still learning a lot about myself and things like that, so I’m not rushing to try and do anything fabulous."
Of course, perspective is good, but the problem is that she has no sense of urgency about her career. The elite players have a desire to be the best they can be all the time, because they know that the future is not guaranteed. While Stephens clearly has the talent and the athletic ability to be a great tennis player, it remains to be seen if she has the drive to be at the top of the game.
Halep, meanwhile, is 22 years old and has found a way to maximize her talent over the past year. The Romanian came into the French Open last year ranked No. 57, but she has been in eight finals and won seven titles in the last 12 months. Still, Halep is not satisfied. While she won't look too far ahead, she did tell Paul Sassoon of UBITennis.com, "I believe in my chance [to win the tournament]."
Before her match against Halep, Stephens seemed confident that her "experience" deep in tournaments would allow her to compete with Halep, since the latter had never been to the fourth round of Roland Garros. Per Sassoon:
For her I think she’s played really, really well like in the smaller tournaments like I haven’t done, and she has a lot of experience with that. I have a lot of experience here.
I think we’re just going to go out there and compete and just see what happens. I know she’s going to give her best, and so am I. That’s all we can ask for.
But at the end of the day, experience didn't matter nearly as much as drive and talent. Halep and Stephens have pretty similar games, both with excellent movement around the court, powerful forehands and inventive angles. But everything that Stephens did on Monday, Halep did better.
The No. 4 seed was more aggressive, more dynamic and more competitive in the tight moments of the match. After squeaking out a very high-quality first set, the Romanian effectively ran away with it.
There is no embarrassment involved in losing to the No. 4 player in the world, and Stephens' run of only losing to players ranked ahead of her in majors is intact. But at a certain point, the bar has to be set higher than that.
She still has time to change her attitude, but if Stephens does not start expecting more from herself and applying herself at the smaller tournaments, there is no way that she's going to make the jump from top-20 player to a legitimate threat at majors. And while she might be fine with that right now, she might be surprised by how quickly her career will go downhill if she doesn't work to maximize it.
Stephens is supposed to be the next great hope for American women after Serena Williams. But if she doesn't embrace that role soon, all hope will be gone before she knows it.