Sloane Stephens' career might be crash landing as swiftly as it took off. Stephens' meteoric rise to tennis stardom hit a snag today when unseeded Maria Kirilenko defeated her 6-2, 7-6 (6).
Losing to Kirilenko, a former Top 10 player, is hardly cause for concern. However, the loss further stalls Stephens' momentum. Once considered a rising star, Stephens is falling.
When post-Wimbledon rankings come out, Stephens will be no higher than No. 19 and could possibly be out of the Top 20.
Going into the tournament, Stephens had reached at least the fourth round in six straight Grand Slam tournaments—the longest streak among active players. The last time she failed to move beyond the first round at a Slam was in 2011, at the French Open.
But she's struggled outside the Slams—just 16-13 this season.
Meanwhile, other young up-and-coming players, such as Eugenie Bouchard (No. 11) and Simona Halep (No. 3), have breezed by Stephens in the rankings. Fellow Americans Madison Keys and Coco Vandeweghe both won their first WTA titles last week. Bouchard won her first title in May, in Nuremberg, Germany. Halep has won seven titles and reached a French Open final.
Stephens has yet to reach a WTA final.
She is far from a one-tournament wonder like Melanie Oudin. Stephens built her resume by playing consistently strong in Slams. She upset Serena Williams in the 2013 Australian Open. She reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year and lost to eventual winner Marion Bartoli. She upset Maria Sharapova in Cincinnati.
Even after suffering through a slump early last year, Stephens rebounded to reach a career-high No. 11.
Her highs have been so high that any stumbles were dismissed as growing pains. The sentiment by many was that she's young, she'll learn and get better.
But this year, things have only gotten worse. During the Australian Open, Stephens was accused of celebrating Serena Williams' loss to Ana Ivanovic. Prior to her fourth-round match against Victoria Azarenka, Stephens described their relationship as "nonexistent."
Certainly, that's not the worst thing a player could say about a competitor. But the statement perpetuated the perception of Stephens as a bit bratty, even childish.
She played with such apathy in a loss against Caroline Wozniacki at the Sony Open that journalists and fans blasted her on Twitter.
Last year, Stephens hired Paul Annacone, the former coach for Roger Federer and Pete Sampras. The move seemed to signal that Stephens was ready to take her game up notch. So far the partnership has yet to yield any noticeable improvements. Instead, Stephens seems as lost as ever.
Stephens is still the second-highest ranked American player, so there is no need to panic. She's only 21, but she could benefit from some serious introspection. Perhaps she might evaluate "the why" as well as "the how" she plays.
Her talent is obvious. Her resolve, however, is in question.
With her rising star status dimmer, Stephens may be arriving at a turning point in her career. No longer rising, Stephens must break the fall and change the trajectory.