Sloane Stephens couldn't leave Arthur Ashe Stadium fast enough Wednesday.
After losing a match she had every chance to win, she declined the usual handshake ritual at the net. Instead, she walked directly to the chair umpire for a quick shake, turned and shook the hand of her conqueror, Johanna Larsson (on Larsson's side of the net), then packed her bags and walked quickly past the few fans at courtside who wanted an autograph. Took a minute.
It took 2 hours, 13 minutes for the unseeded Larsson to beat the 21st-seeded Stephens, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2. And with the loss, Stephens completes what has to be a disappointing season, particularly in the Grand Slams. From what she said afterward, it was difficult to tell what she was feeling, but her body language on the court seemed to say a lot. And it wasn't good.
Stephens has been looked upon as the next rising American star for the last two seasons, largely based on her performances in the majors. Starting at the 2013 Australian Open, where she scored a win over Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, she made at least the fourth round of six consecutive majors. That streak ended with a first-round loss at Wimbledon, and Wednesday's loss in the second round of the Open was the first time in four appearances here that she had failed to make the third round.
From a career-high ranking of 12th last season, she had fallen to 24th by the time she arrived at the Open. Her singles record this season is 21-19 and she is not only still searching for her first WTA tour-level victory, she has never reached a final.
Up a set and 3-0 Wednesday, playing in a tournament and on a court where she is the clear fan favorite, Stephens plummeted and only won three of the next 15 games. She made 63 unforced errors, more than double Larsson's.
"Things just got a little shaky," she said of losing that second-set lead. "She played some good games after that. Start of the third set, I tried to just put it behind me and came out swinging. Today, she played a solid game, and it was just unfortunate. I had many opportunities, but just couldn't convert."
Late last year she hired former Long Islander Paul Annacone as coach. Annacone had coached Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. Stephens' relationship with Annacone ended after her first-round loss at Wimbledon and she took on longtime coach Thomas Hogstedt. So far, the progress has been minimal, and Stephens is still looking for answers when questioned about the state of her game.
"I haven't had that great a season," she said. "I'm not going to dwell on it. There's always room for improvement. Everyone has their ups and downs. Everyone goes through times like this. I'm not the first person and won't be the last. Like I said, I'm looking forward to the next tournament. And that's all I can really do, just look forward."