x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Dubai Tennis Championships: Sloane Stephens has some seeds of doubt

The young American fails to replicate form that saw her beat Serena Williams

Sloane Stephens was defeated by Romania’s Sorana Cirstea in Dubai yesterday.
Sloane Stephens was defeated by Romania’s Sorana Cirstea in Dubai yesterday.

DUBAI // Serena Williams may have been confirmed yesterday as the oldest world No 1 in women's tennis, but when the 31 year old finally decides to put down her racket, the rookie tipped to carry the torch is a 19 year old from Plantation, Florida.

Sloane Stephens has shown glimpses of her potential; none more impressive than her victory over Williams in the Australian Open quarter-finals last month.

Yet she knows she must find continuity in her game to maintain the high level of performance that is quickly becoming expected of her.

Since her Melbourne moment, Stephens has struggled for rhythm. In Doha last week, she was seeded but lost in the second round to Klara Zakopalova.

Yesterday, she was eliminated from the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships after slipping to a 7-5, 3-6, 2-6 defeat to Sorana Cirstea at the Aviation Club.

"It's obviously tough," the world No 16 said. "I'm in a completely new situation. I'm coming from not being seeded at tournaments to seeded and then coming somewhere I have never been before.

"It's definitely a change for me and sometimes it doesn't click right away. But I'm working on it, and I don't really feel any pressure - Serena Williams is No 1 in the world."

As well as increased media commitments and shooting a commercial for American sportswear giant Under Armour, Stephens has earned compliments from some famous admirers in the form of the NBA's Shaquille O'Neal and Dirk Nowitzki. "My life has changed drastically," she said.

This month's two Middle East tournaments marked the right-hander's first trip to the Arabian Gulf, but resulted in her missing the US National Indoor Championships in Memphis. The decision will stand her in good stead going forward, she hopes.

"The easy way out would have just been to stay home and play Memphis and say, 'Oh, I'm at home, no worries'," Stephens said.

"When I get back to Indian Wells or get back to Miami I will feel a lot more comfortable. And even if I happen to lose first and first both tournaments, it doesn't matter. Next year I will be better prepared coming here because I will know what I'm getting myself into."

While Stephens was due to depart the Emirates last night, Williams starts her quest for a maiden Dubai title tomorrow against Marion Bartoli, who beat Zakopalova 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

It will mark the 15-time major winner's first match as the game's top-ranked player in more than two years. Stephens, however, said that in her idolatrous eyes at least little has changed.

"I always saw her at No 1," she said. "Just because [she did not] have a computer ranking of No 1 doesn't mean she wasn't No 1.

"When she won the Olympics, when she won Wimbledon, when she won the US Open ... The computer ranking is a computer ranking, but I think we all know who the best player in the world was at the time."