Sloane Stephens level-headed after slip

LONDON -- Sloane Stephens called it "a process." She was being asked about the potential of the next group of young American women, but she was talking about herself.

"The next level" is generally how it is put, which ostensibly means winning Grand Slam tournaments and breaking into the top 10. For Stephens, the highest-ranked American woman (18th) after Serena Williams, her most prodigious accomplishment heading into Wimbledon -- six straight appearances in the second week of a major, which ended Monday with her first-round loss -- also has been something of an albatross.

"There's a lot of people between my ranking and No. 1, and obviously a lot of people between me and the 128[-player] draw at a Grand Slam," said Stephens, who lost to 109th-ranked Maria Kirilenko 6-2, 7-6 (6), on Day 1 at Wimbledon. "That's a lot of people you have to get through to win a Slam.

"That's tough. It's hard work. Obviously everyone works hard for that. Sometimes it doesn't happen."

That it didn't happen against Kirilenko can be looked at in a variety of ways.

Kirilenko, best known for her doubles and her famous fiancé (Washington Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin), missed the first three months of the year with a knee injury and entered Wimbledon having won only one match in 2014.

But Kirilenko is no singles slouch. She has reached the quarterfinals in three Grand Slam tournaments -- Wimbledon in 2012, the French Open in 2013 and the Australian Open in 2010 -- and was ranked as high as 10th in June of last year. She also has six WTA titles in her career.

Stephens had a chance to break at 1-1 in the first set but did not convert and ended up losing her serve twice and dropping five straight games over the end of the first set and start of the second.

She briefly recovered, winning three straight games to go up a break at 3-1 in the second. But Kirilenko broke back to 4-4, jumping on Stephens' first serve as Stephens slipped on the new grass to set up the break point.

It appeared Stephens had regained momentum when she saved five match points in the 12th game of the set to force a tiebreaker. But Stephens squandered one set point by not going down the line with her forehand, instead setting up Kirilenko for a perfect lob for a winner. On a second set point, Kirilenko had an overhead winner.

"I mean, she played some good tennis," Stephens said. "There's nothing I could do. I hit a forehand crosscourt, and she was standing there waiting to lob it over my head. So that wasn't the greatest play on Earth.

"I could tell you a whole bunch of things I could have done differently. But it was a match. I played an opponent who played pretty solid. It was just a rough day for me."

So where did that leave Stephens' frame of mind afterward? Trying to be humorous and falling somewhere between that and sarcastic, as she usually does.

"The streak is broken," the 21-year-old said. "I'm so sorry to all of you who don't have to write about me this week and next week. I'm so sorry."

Becoming a little more serious, Stephens described herself as "sad, but there's obviously nothing I can do. It feels like the end of the world now, but fortunately it's not, so that's a good thing."

Her glass-half-full perspective is not surprising given that she has spent much of her young career being held up to Williams and talked about more for her unrealized potential than celebrated for her enormous talent and early success.

On Monday, Stephens talked about facing adversity and getting through it, seemingly a constant state for her.

"It comes in bunches and it's tough, but you've got to work through it," she said. "There are things you guys don't know about, a lot of things everyone else doesn't see, but you have to work through it and you have to deal with it. Sometimes you've got to be a big girl and just work through all the things troubling you."

Stephens lost to two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January and to top-five player Simona Halep in the same round of the French Open earlier this month. So the breakthrough has not exactly been an easy proposition.

"You've just got to go back and keep working," Stephens said.

Then, just as quickly, she was asked about the "next group" of Americans, which includes Madison Keys and Coco Vandeweghe, both of whom won tournaments last week.

"That's really awesome," Stephens said. And then, because she never can resist: "Just add those two to the list of players who have won a tournament before me.

"But that's OK. Don't worry."

Sometimes, as she said, you just have to be a big girl.