MASON, Ohio — Sloane Stephens scored her second victory over a top-five player and her biggest win on home soil Tuesday night, ousting No. 3 Maria Sharapova 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 in the second round of the Western & Southern Open.
It was Sharapova’s first match since her second-round loss at Wimbledon as well as her first under the tutelage of newly appointed coach Jimmy Connors, who sat intently in her player’s box through the night. Sharapova came into the match 3-0 against Stephens, having never dropped a set to the American and beating her handily twice this year on clay.
Sharapova showed no rust to start the match and looked in cruise control after building a 6-2, 2-0 lead before Stephens seemed to shake the nerves and started going for her shots. As the American’s aggression and steadiness improved, Sharapova began to miss. A lot.
“I stopped being patient,” Sharapova said. “I started making a lot more errors, especially off the first ball. Just errors that I shouldn’t make. Obviously, I haven’t played in a long time, but I can’t make that excuse for myself because I’ve got to be ready from the first match.”
Said Stephens: “I was playing terribly, but at the start of the second I was just going to start going for my shots a little more and hopefully they’ll just go in. It wasn’t going well at all, but I was glad I started hitting and finding a rhythm, and that kind of helped me out.”
On a cool night that kept the conditions slightly slower than usual on the notoriously quick surface in Cincinnati, Sharapova found it increasingly difficult to hit through Stephens’ defense. She hit just 16 winners to 62 unforced errors, while Stephens finished with 20 winners to 51 unforced errors. The 20-year-old American wobbled trying to serve out the win, double-faulting on two match points, but finally clinched it on her third when a Sharapova forehand sailed wide.
“She puts up a really great fight,” Sharapova said. “She’s improved so much over the last year, and that’s definitely visible. We haven’t played on hard [courts] in a long time. But like I said, if I kept doing the right things that I was doing up 6-2 and 2-1 with the break, I wouldn’t have to talk about how well she’s playing.”
Sharapova says she has no intention of taking a wild card into next week’s New Haven Open, opting to return to Florida to continue her training before the U.S. Open, where she is a defending semifinalist. That means she will have played just one match between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open when the tournament begins in less than two weeks.
As for Stephens, she credited her three previous losses to Sharapova for giving her the experience to know how to prepare and play the big-hitting Russian.
“Sometimes I’ll be practicing,” Stephens said, and I’m like, ‘Sharapova is going to hit this shot, so hit it back.’ I definitely I knew I could do it. I just needed to execute.”