At the BNP, the pressure gets to overwhelmed Sloane Stephens

© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — She was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the first American woman in 20 years not named Venus or Serena to win the U.S. Open, the national tennis championship.

Suddenly — or maybe not so suddenly — Sloane Stephens was the fresh face the sport needed in this country, a charmer, a star and most importantly a champion.

But other than the stability of the Williams sisters, ladies’ tennis seems a mass of unpredictability — or is that a mess? — with too many fragile egos and missed forehands, top players losing their serve and their nerve, in no particular order.

Stephens on Friday played her first singles match in this year’s BNP Paribas Open. Also her last match. She was upset by a qualifier — one who’s got Stephens’ number, Stefanie Voegele of Switzerland.

No, Stephens wasn’t merely upset. She was overwhelmed, crushed, embarrassed. Voegele, taking the last eight games, won, 6-3, 6-0. That’s right. In the second set Sloane Stephens, 2017 U.S. Open champion, 2018 French Open finalist, was blanked. Or, as the tennis literati phrase it, “bageled.”

By an opponent who is 109th in the WTA rankings, or 105 spots below Stephens.

Yes, that’s why they play the game. And Voegele had defeated Stephens four of the previous five times they’d met. And Stephens is between coaches.

Still, getting broken five times and losing eight consecutive games to a 28-year-old who had to play her way into the tournament? A bit discouraging, Sloane?

“It’s different when you’re in the top 10,” Stephens said, “and every win against you is a great win for someone else.”

That’s the way sport works. Not many care who beats the mediocre players, the average teams. Serena has the pressure on her every match, the way the Warriors have the pressure on them every game — and indeed they’ve been stomped a few times of late.

You know the cliché: If you can’t stand the heat, then climb into the ice cream cabinet.

You never heard Tiger Woods gripe about being on top. Or the New England Patriots. Or Roger Federer or Rafa Nadal. For all of them, and teams like Clemson in football or Duke in basketball, the price of success is taken for granted.

There’s never an opportunity to relax. Everyone guns for you. And yet what you’ve accomplished should be an edge, reassurance. The opponents know you’re a winner.

“A lot has happened since (winning the 2017 U.S. Open),” Stephens told Larry Bohannan of the Palm Springs Desert Sun on Wednesday. “It gives you confidence, obviously, being a Grand Slam champion. Getting to the top five in the world. A lot of positives.

“But I think I still have lot of tennis left in me, a lot of things I want to accomplish. Definitely some good icing on the cake, but a lot left more to do.”

Two weeks from her 26th birthday, Stephens had the icing symbolically flung into her face.

“Sometimes things are really spitty,” she explained, or something close to that, “and they always get better. I mean, I think things will get better.”

After losing eight straight games in your first singles match in the tournament known as tennis’ fifth slam, they hardly can get worse.

“Might not be in the next week,” Stephens conceded. “But for sure in the next couple of months, maybe things will figure themselves out. It was unfortunate I lost the last set 6-0.

“I’m going through a transition. It’s tough. Playing a sport is not easy.”

That is a given. Otherwise we’d all be hitting backhands or jump shots. Yet Sloane Stephens, with her skill, apparently has hit the skids.

“I wasn’t playing that great,” she said, emphasizing the obvious, “and playing against someone who has beaten me in the past.

“I definitely think things will get better,” she repeated, trying to convince herself as much as the rest of us. “And then we’ll be in a big press conference. So I’m waiting for that day and looking forward to that day.”

One thing for sure, it won’t be this BNP Paribas tournament.