By Benjamin Snyder, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.
CINCINNATI - Under the sun at the Lindner Family Tennis Center, a player who’s considered to be one of the future talents in American women’s tennis took to the courts in her first round match at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.
That player, the 19-year old Sloane Stephens of the United States, raced to a quick 2-0 lead against Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova in the first set. She couldn’t keep up the momentum for much longer, however, as the players traded service breaks to eventually even the score at 4-all.
Stephens, the youngest player in the top 50, regrouped and regained momentum with help from Pironkova, including two straight errors and a double fault to take the score to 5-4.
But the American wasn’t about to take any chances going forward.
Stephens called her coach, David Nainkin, who she shares with compatriot Sam Querrey and who she started using after Wimbledon, to the court. After that, the Floridian hardly looked back.
Stephens reeled off the next five games in a row to take the first set 6-4, while also securing a 4-0 lead over the former Wimbledon semifinalist in the second. She closed out the match three games later to win 6-4, 6-1 in just over an hour..
Stephens was mum about Nainkin’s advice to rev her up during the changeover. "I can’t tell you. It’s a secret," the cheerful Stephens told reporters after the match. "No, actually we broke our streak, because [Nainkin] has been on the court in every match since Wimbledon, and every time he comes to the court I lose like four games in a row or something."
This time around things ended up a little differently for her as the dominating score ultimately proved. "We were just happy that I didn’t lose games after he came out," she joked.
On her third match point, Stephens benefited from more shaky play from the Bulgarian to claim her first win at the Western & Southern Open. Last year, the American fell to Sara Errani, the Roland Garros runner-up this year, in straight sets as the No. 110 player in the world.
At Cincinnati in 2012, Stephens finds herself in a different position. She comes into the event with a career-high ranking of No. 49, having advanced to the semifinals in Washington. Earlier this season, Stephens backed up her third round appearance at the 2011 US Open by getting to the fourth round of Roland Garros and the third round of Wimbledon.
About her success on clay in Paris this season, Stephens considers it her favorite surface. "Yeah, I love clay," she said. "You know, I grew up playing on clay in Florida. It’s something I really enjoy."
After a let down following Wimbledon, in which she lost in the first round at the Emirates US Open Series tournaments in Stanford and Carlsbad, Stephens said that she "wasn’t ready to play" due to health issues. "But I just insisted on playing anyway," she said.
She calls youth a factor in the poor decision-making and admitted that she’s still learning. "Being 19, I wanted to do whatever I wanted to do," she said. "It wasn’t the right decision, but I got there and played and learned my lesson."
About future improvements to take her game to the next level, Stephens pointed to her youth as an issue again. "I’ve got to concentrate and stay in it more," she said, smiling. "When I get out of my teen years, that’ll go away."
Notably, Stephens is the youngest direct entrant at the Premier-level Cincinnati tournament with her wild card. Venus Williams, who she cites as an inspiration, and who won on Center Court later on Tuesday, is the oldest at 32.
Looking ahead to the US Open, Stephens explained her desire to continue training and improving. "I kind of want to stay in the gym and keep working so I can peak at the Open and do my best," she said. "I just love the environment. It’s so amazing. It makes you so proud to be out there playing."
In a rare loss for words, the gregarious teenager appeared tongue-tied when talking further about playing at her country’s major event. But this time, the setback seemed less connected to her youth and more due to the meaningfulness of the occasion.
"I don’t know," she confessed. "I just love it."