Last year may have been a renaissance of sorts for the women’s game in the United States, but day one of the n Open delivered a sharp slap in the face and a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted.
In the space of a few hours and with the first batch of new tennis balls barely out of the can, reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Venus Williams and CoCo Vandeweghe were sent crashing out.
And by mid to late afternoon, all eight American women scheduled on the opening day were left holding only a first round loser’s cheque.
Last year’s n Open runner-up, tour veteran Willams, wasn’t quite as big a shock departure in losing to in-form Swiss Belinda Bencic 6-3, 7-5 but the exits of Stephens and Vandeweghe raised eyebrows.
For a women’s field already without their queen, American Serena Williams, the chase for the Daphne Akhurst Trophy this January was shaping as one of the most open in years. It suddenly got a whole lot more interesting. The winner on Saturday week just might not be an American, however.
Stephens lost 6-2, 6-7 (2), 2-6 to world No.34 Zhang Shuai, of China, a quarter-finalist at Melbourne Park in 2016.
In the early stages, Stephens showed no signs of her sluggish year-end form, posting 14 winners to race through the first set in 38 minutes.
At 4-4 in the second, the young American seemingly stuck the killer blow to break Zhang’s serve for the sixth time.
But the second-ranked Chinese women’s player rallied from 4-5 down to force a second-set tiebreaker, and later a deciding final set.
Stephens, who featured in an all-American semi-final line-up at Flushing Meadows with Madison Keys, Venus Williams and Vandeweghe, took a measured stance after her defeat, even with her winless streak now out to eight matches since her maiden grand slam.
“Everyone is so depressed and so down,” she told the assembled media after the match.
“I’m going to beat someone eventually. I will have the best Instagram picture when I finally snap this losing streak.
“Yeah, it’s not tough times. It’s just a learning experience. You know, it’s a long journey. Like I said, this year, it’s a new year, only the second tournament of the year. It’s a long road and long season ahead.”
Contrast that with Vandeweghe, who was feeling the heat in her 7-6 (7-4), 6-2 loss to Hungarian Timea Babos. After dropping the opening set, Vandeweghe went bananas. Literally.
The American received a code violation for time wasting – a stance she took because the lack of fruit on hand.
“I’m waiting for the bananas,” she told chair umpire Fergus Murphy.
“Why should I feel uncomfortable because the court is ill-prepared?”
Stephens, famously, went from world No.934 to winning the US Open within a month.
To questions about how she’s adjusted since joining the ranks of grand slam champions, the 24-year-old reflected on her crazy 2017.
“I think my adjustment period was not playing tennis for 11 months, and then winning a grand slam. I think that was my adjustment period,” she said.
“I had not played tennis in a long time, so I hadn’t been in a press conference or press room. And press in Toronto and Cincinnati was, like, all of three people, and I had really nothing to worry about.
“And then I think after not playing for so long and then winning, that’s what got me. Not so much that I wasn’t ready to win a grand slam, whatever, I just hadn’t been playing.
“So not playing and not having to do anything and enjoying my life, as they say, living your best life, that’s what I was doing, to winning a slam and then having to deal with all of that and trying to continue to live my best life. I think that’s what got me.”
“I think winning the US Open, like, it’s just never going to be enough for certain people and people who talk about and you guys who write about it and whatever, it’s never going to be enough.
“But as long as it’s enough for me and I feel good that I have done what I can to progress and do whatever I can for my personal career, that’s OK.”
Williams, in contrast, had already moved on after her second loss to a big name in 2018. The 37-year-old exited the Sydney International at the hands of eventual winner Angelique Kerber.
“No, I mean, I had two tough draws. You have to get started immediately. Just not the best luck in terms of, you know, a quick start. The rest of the year to go,” she said.
The loss to sister Serena in last year’s n final was already just a memory too. “Last year is last year. This is, like, a new year. You can’t live in the previous year. It’s impossible.”
It’s the right adage for American tennis too. There were some great heights in 2017, but they are also in the past.