MELBOURNE — Sloane Stephens hasn’t won a match in the seven she’s played since winning her first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open last September. Nevertheless, the 24-year-old is dismissing that fact as inconsequential as she approaches the start of the Australian Open.
“I think you have to kind of put everything in perspective, evaluate where you are,” Stephens said. “I think personally I had a lot of things going on. It’s a new year, new season. I’m hoping not to get injured. There’s tons of things to look forward to. I’m not going to dwell too much on that (the losses).”
Following her triumphant U.S. Open, Stephens spent the remainder of 2017 dealing with a knee injury, and lost all six matches played during the remainder of the season, including two at the Fed Cup final. Despite Stephens’ lacking performance the U.S. increased their Fed Cup winning record to 18 titles with their 3-2 win over Belarus in Minsk.
The highlight of the 13th-seeded Stephen’s autumn came off the court when she graduated with a degree in communications from Indiana University East through a discounted online program arranged with the school by the WTA.
“Everyone in my family has a degree. My mom has her doctorate,” Stephens said. “My brother is in college. I have to graduate before him because I’m better than him. I have to prove to him that I’m smarter in everything.”
While Stephens speaks of hope heading into the new year, she didn’t start 2018 on a high note. She lost her first match 5-7, 6-3, 6-1 to the seemingly rejuvenated Angelique Kerber of Germany, the 2016 Australian Open champion, at the Sydney tournament earlier this week.
Stephens’ rise to Grand Slam champion status played out like a fairytale, which earned her the 2017 WTA Comeback Player of the Year honors. Sidelined with a foot injury for one month shy of a year, Stephens returned to the tour at Wimbledon, ranked as low as No. 957 the last week of July, and then went 15-2 in matches played through the U.S. Open.
“I think it’s always a tough transition when you go from not playing tennis for 11 months to winning a Grand Slam,” Stephens said. “It’s never going to be anything you expected. In terms of that, it’s a little bit overwhelming.
“I thought winning the U.S. Open was, like, the hardest two weeks of my life.” she said. “To win seven matches in a row, to say that’s luck? I wouldn’t say that. … If it wasn’t hard, then everyone could do it, right?”
Stephens made her first big impression in the game at the 2013 Australian Open when she upset Serena Williams to reach a first major semifinal.
In a position to become the 10th player to win back-to-back titles at the U.S. and Australian Opens, Stephens will play 35th-ranked Zhang Shuai of China in the first round.
Stephens, who was also seeded 13th the only other time she was seeded at the Australian Open in 2014, is one of four American women with seeding distinction this year. Venus Williams is the highest-seeded player of the Americans at No. 5, Coco Vandeweghe is No. 10 and Madison Keys, who lost to Stephens in the U.S. Open final, is No. 17.
The Australian Open will definitely not have a repeat champion this year with Serena Williams remaining on maternity leave after the birth of her first child, daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., in September. The only past champion in the women’s draw is Kerber, so there are good odds that the Australian Open will welcome a new champion in two week’s time.
The 37-year-old Venus Williams arrives here as the closest thing to a defending champion, as it was she who was defeated by her already pregnant sister, Serena, in last year’s final.
The oldest player in this year’s draw, Williams reached the Australian Open and Wimbledon finals, and the BNP Paribas WTA…