Stephens falls flat against Azarenka

MELBOURNE, Australia -- After answering questions in a cramped interview room about her first-round loss and career trajectory, Sloane Stephens stopped at a media workroom desk to watch a match on the TV monitor. That match was Taylor Townsend playing Caroline Wozniacki in a first-set tiebreaker. Stephens watched for a moment and then walked on.

We officially crowned Stephens as America's next big thing and the heir apparent to Serena Williams after she beat Serena in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open here two years ago. But if you are going to carry on the Williams sisters' tradition, it helps to win a tournament, which Stephens, now 21, has failed to do. She has yet to even reach a WTA final.

Although Stephens did bolster her game in Grand Slam events and reached the fourth round in six consecutive majors, she has struggled on the big stage lately. She lost in the first round at Wimbledon and the second round of the US Open last year, and in the first round of the Aussie Open on Tuesday. Limited by a wrist injury that ended her season in September, she tumbled from No. 12 at the end of 2013 to No. 32 this year.

Granted, Stephens did not receive a favorable draw here, opening against 2012 and 2013 Aussie champ Victoria Azarenka. Stephens had lost to her in their two previous matches, both here, in the 2013 quarterfinals and the 2014 semifinals. That the two were matched in the first round this year was a result of a poor 2014 that dropped both players out of the top 30, with Azarenka falling all the way from No. 2 to No. 44.

"I knew I was going to play her," Stephens said. "She was not seeded, I was not seeded, so I knew we would play each other. That's just how it's going to be. That's unfortunate but it's just kind of how it happens.''

Stephens won the first game but didn't fare well after that, eventually losing 6-3, 6-2. She has yet to win a set against Azarenka. And this was her third consecutive first-week departure at a major.

"It's the third tournament of the year. There's a long ways to go," Stephens said. "I'm obviously disappointed that I lost, but if I dwell on this, the next 25 tournaments I'm going to play this year probably would suck, too. I'm going to try to keep my head up and work as hard as I can.''

Asked whether it might be a good thing that the pressure and scrutiny might diminish, Stephens replied that she didn't expect it would.

"It's not going to change because I lose and you guys are still here. You guys are still tweeting, you guys are still talking about me. It never really changes," she said. "Once you do something good and you're kind of -- not that I'm bad at tennis and I haven't been great, but I'm a good tennis player, so there's something to talk about there. I don't think it goes away. Once it's there, it's there."

Well, maybe. There were a dozen reporters in the small conference room, but it is time to shift the spotlight from Stephens. She clearly has the ability. And she still has time (she doesn't turn 22 until March). But until she starts actually winning, we should devote more attention to other U.S. players, such as No. 37 Coco Vandeweghe, who won Tuesday. Vandeweghe, thanks to an improved backhand, hopes to reach the top 20 this year.

And we also should continue to keep our eye on the 18-year-old Townsend, who cracked the top 100 last week. Like Stephens, she also faced a tough opponent: former No. 1 Wozniacki, perhaps the best player to never win a Slam (yet). The two played in Auckland two weeks ago, with Townsend sending the second set to a tiebreaker. This time, Townsend forced a tiebreaker in the first set before losing 7-6 and then dropping the second set 6-2.

Still, it was a pretty good match for a teen against a player who reached the final at last year's US Open. "I definitely made her play," Townsend said.

"I knew that Taylor has a tricky game because she's a lefty, first of all, she knows how to get that serve into your body," Wozniacki said. "She comes to the net, mixes up the pace. So I knew it wasn't going to be the most beautiful game out there from my side. But I just needed to grind it out and just stay with her."

Townsend is happy with her progress and says she takes positives from both the matches she wins and the ones she loses.

"Overall, just getting more match confidence and getting to play more consistently on this level makes a huge difference," Townsend said. "Being able to be around and in the midst of all these players and play these events give me a more consistent idea. Nothing beats experience.''

Except, of course, winning.