Venus Williams, whose terse news conferences are becoming a trademark, summed up the abrupt shift in momentum succinctly.
“Last year is last year,” she said. “You can’t live in the previous year. It’s impossible.”
Williams, an enduring champion, was one of four American women to reach the semifinals at the United States Open in September, but after Monday’s stumbles, the only one of those four women still in the singles tournament here is Madison Keys, who will play her first-round match on Tuesday.
The first to fall was Sloane Stephens, the big-surprise U.S. Open champion. Stephens, seeded 13th here, has yet to win another match since that feel-good breakthrough and was beaten on Monday in Margaret Court Arena by Zhang Shuai of China, 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2.
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“Tennis is definitely a roller coaster,” Stephens said at her alternately downbeat and upbeat news conference. “But I have learned to just not panic. It will be O.K. There’s always going to be times when it’s really tough, and there will be times when you’re on an extreme high. I think for me now it’s not that great, but it’s nothing to panic about, guys.”
Next to lose was Williams, the 37-year-old who had one of her finest seasons last year in the major tournaments but had perhaps the most daunting opening-round assignment here of any top women’s player: the unseeded Belinda Bencic, who defeated Williams, 6-3, 7-5.
Bencic, a former top 10 player from Switzerland, has come back convincingly from left wrist surgery last year and was fresh off winning the Hopman Cup team event with Roger Federer. On Monday, she took the initiative from the baseline repeatedly and returned serve with aplomb to defeat Williams for the first time in five matches.
“I don’t think I played a bad match,” Williams said. “She just played above and beyond.”
The next high-profile American to lose was CoCo Vandeweghe, the No. 10 seed and a semifinalist here last year, who was upset, 7-6 (4), 6-2, in Hisense Arena by Timea Babos, a Hungarian veteran with a serve nearly as big as Vandeweghe’s.
Vandeweghe later said she had been suffering from the flu, which had affected her preparation for the tournament
“In women’s tennis, I think we see it: Anything can happen when there is no Serena Williams,” Babos said.
Even without Serena Williams, the American women have had considerable success in the past year. On Monday, however, they were 1-9 collectively, with the only victory coming in the hinterlands of Court 22 from Nicole Gibbs, the former Stanford star who was also the last direct entry into the main draw.
“Some of the girls who had tough matches earlier today were kind of ribbing me in the locker room before I went on, saying ‘You need to hold it down for our country today,’ so no pressure,” Gibbs said.
She went on to defeat Viktoriya Tomova, a Bulgarian who made it into the tournament as a lucky loser, by 6-1, 6-1.
Referring to the three U.S. Open semifinalists who lost before she took the court, Gibbs said, “Obviously that speaks volumes to the depth, especially on the WTA Tour, so I think it’s just a tough game, and it’s tough to stay on top repeatedly.”
Two of the three top-ranked American men – Jack Sock and John Isner – also lost on Monday. Sock, who broke into the top 10 last year and qualified for the elite ATP World Tour Finals in London, was upset, 6-1, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-3, by the Japanese veteran Yuichi Sugita.
Sock said his surprising late-season surge has played a role in his downbeat start to 2018 (he also lost a lopsided opening match in Auckland, New Zealand where he was defending champion).
“It’s just a weird feeling because you are on the highest of highs after making it,” he said of London. “You go home, and you’re all excited and it’s Thanksgiving with your family and then in your head, you’re like, ‘Well I only have a couple weeks to train and get ready and then it’s kind of back to reality and the grind of it.’”
Kevin Anderson, a surprise finalist at last year’s U.S. Open, was also defeated on day one, losing in five sets to Kyle Edmund of Britain. But Rafael Nadal, the No. 1 seed who defeated Anderson in that U.S. Open final, had no such concerns in his first official match of 2018, defeating Victor Estrella Burgos, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.
Nadal said he had “no problems” with his troublesome right knee that forced him to withdraw from his planned opening event of 2018 in Brisbane.
“If I don’t feel myself ready, I will not be here,” he said. “So I am happy to be here, happy that I’m on court again. Last year has been a long, very good but long season. So let’s start another one and try to don’t think much about what happened the year before.”
That is also the challenge for Stephens, whose tennis roller coaster has been one of the wildest rides imaginable. After an 11-month injury layoff, she roared back to win her first major singles title in New York shortly after returning to action. Since then, Stephens has lost eight straight matches.
“I’m not going to dwell on it just because I lost eight matches in a row and say, ‘Oh winning the U.S. Open, it’s haunting me now,’” Stephens said. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
She added: “You know, before I would get so upset about what people would write and say things about me on TV and blah, blah, blah — and now it’s like, yeah, who cares? I won a Grand Slam. I’m going through a tough time. Who cares?
“No one cares about my life. I’m just having fun. I’m enjoying it. There’s too much emphasis on the bad things that happen after something really great happens.”
Six other American women also lost on Monday: the youngsters CiCi Bellis, Taylor Townsend, Sofia Kenin and Jennifer Brady, as well as the veterans Alison Riske and Irina Falconi.
But the most prominent American to fall was the fifth-ranked Venus Williams, who last year reached the finals of the Australian Open and Wimbledon. She was defeated in Melbourne last year by her sister Serena Williams, who was two months pregnant at the time.
Serena Williams, who gave birth to a daughter in September, has not played another tour-level match since that victory, while Venus Williams has continued to excel and even talk about playing until the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
But Bencic, 17 years Venus Williams’s junior, is a remarkable talent. She was not yet born the last time no Williams sister reached the second round of the Australian Open. That was in 1997, but Bencic ensured it happened this year by playing a poised and aggressive match. She is now one of the few to have defeated both Williams sisters in singles (she upset Serena Williams in the final of the Rogers Cup in 2015 before experiencing injury issues).
“Obviously yeah, the first reaction of everyone was like, ‘Oh bad luck, bad luck,’” said Bencic of being drawn to face Venus Williams.
But she said she adopted a different approach than in her previous defeats to Venus. “For the first matches, I think I had a little bit too much respect, played a little bit careful and safe,” Bencic said. “This time I really tried to come out and hit it big, also tactically be smart on the court. It’s really tough to play her. You really have to be on the limit of your game. You have to come out with everything you have.”
Stephens has been troubled by a knee issue, but her confidence also has seemed to be a factor. And though she served for the match at 5-4 in the second set on Monday, she was unable to close it out.
It all amounted to a major mood swing from September in New York: a shift also represented by Stephens’s coach, Kamau Murray, normally a gifted and expansive communicator who walked out of Margaret Court Arena wearing a pained expression before delivering a series of remarkably curt answers to questions.
Is the issue more mental or physical for Stephens at the moment?
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