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Stephens loses, but walks away more educated

When Sloane Stephens reflects on her career — or, more optimistically, when she writes her memoir — she will dwell on 2013 as a critical year.

Sports Illustrated

Stephens is home-schooled, but she’s getting a true education in tennis.

It’s not even Fourth of July weekend, and Stephens has made more than US$1 million this year.

She’s performed on four continents. She’s played a starring role in controversies memorialised on video, audio and social media. She has learned to balance media obligations, sponsor obligations and tennis obligations.

And she’s also been educated on the court. She took down the mighty Serena Williams in Australia in January, and then watched as her next opponent zinged her with a bit of gamesmanship.

She endured a common slump, losing eight out of nine matches during one stretch, but recovered to reach the second week of both the French Open and Wimbledon, which did wonders for her tennis GPA.

In fact, odds are good that she will enter the top 10 soon, without even reaching a WTA final, much less winning a title. Stephens got another lesson Tuesday.

In the quarterfinals of this thoroughly nonsensical Wimbledon, Stephens faced Marion Bartoli of France. With so many seeds mowed down on the grass, the notion of Stephens’ winning the title wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

Certainly she had the ability to get by Bartoli, given her superior power, movement and athleticism.

Bartoli, though, is much further along in her education, and she brought that to bear. While Bartoli played with a game plan, hitting deep and taking away angles, Stephens seemed only to blast away. (“She has no playing patterns,” a former Grand Slam champ remarked. “Zero.”) With Stephens serving at 4-5 in the first set, a touch of rain fell from the sky. Whether it was because of concern for her safety or because of a realization that the kid would be more nervous after a delay, Bartoli simply refused to continue playing with the game at deuce. Who knew you could do that? Bartoli did. Sure enough, after a rain delay spanning more than two hours, she returned to break Stephens and win the set.

“It would have been nice to finish that game,” Stephens said. “Coming back and serving at deuce, that’s always going to be tough for anyone. I probably warmed up three times in the gym before we went back on the court. … But that’s how it is sometimes. You kind of just have to go with it.”

In the second set, Bartoli comforted herself like a 12-year veteran, going through her routines between points — quirky as they are — and betraying little emotion. Stephens looked the part of the 20-year-old sophomore, rolling her eyes at misses, taking more risks than the situation demanded, approaching the net as though under duress.

After recovering from a 3-5 deficit and rousing the crowd, Stephens had all kinds of opportunities to level the match. Forehand sailed long, backhands curled wide, first serves hit the net. Bartoli won 6-4, 7-5. Class dismissed.

“I am disappointed in myself because I know I probably could have given a little bit more,” Stephens said. “I’m disappointed that my service games didn’t go so well. You have to keep learning from it and keep moving forward.”

Attitude is no small component when it comes to making it as a pro player. And if Stephens is looking on the bright side, she frames her tournament as such: She was prone to lapses, seldom played her best and is still learning to like grass. And she came within a few (loose) points of reaching the semifinals, picking up more than US$300 000 in the process.

The other way to look at it: She lost a winnable match. And it’s all part of her ongoing education.

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