At the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Monday, we got a glimpse of how quickly fortunes can change in the world of professional tennis. Laura Robson and Sloane Stephens, two teenagers who made headlines at the Australian Open just weeks ago, were dumped out of the WTA Premier event in the first round by lower-ranked, lower-profile opponents.
Having both beaten Grand Slam champions in Melbourne, the biggest prospects in British and American tennis learned just how tough it is to adapt to greater expectations, and their chances to make a big impact in the Middle East ended before they had even begun.
Stephens, who upset Serena Williams on the way to her first Grand Slam semi-final at the Australian Open, has had marginally more success in the last fortnight. She won her opening round at the Qatar Total Open, but in her second match in Doha, she lost a final set tie-break to Russia’s Klara Zakopalova, having served for the match at 6-5. The young American was not best pleased by her performance, but she could point to the swirling winds and humidity, as well as the lingering effects of a stomach virus, as factors in her defeat.
In Dubai, however, playing conditions were more favourable, and Stephens was expected to come through her first round encounter with Sorana Cristea of Romania. Yet after edging a tight first set, the Floridian grew increasingly frustrated, unleashing a scream after a particularly ugly unforced error and even receiving a warning from the umpire for racket abuse. Cristea won the final two sets comfortably, leaving Stephens with a 1-2 win-loss record post-Australia.
Stephens admitted that her life has changed somewhat following her remarkable exploits down under. Huge media attention has led to her being hyped as the next big star in American tennis, and she has had to adjust quickly.
“The first week at home (after the Australian Open) was really tough. Everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, I want to see you,’” said Stephens. “Of course I had people tweeting me and stuff. And I wanted to make time for my friends and see like the people who I was supposed to see.”
Laura Robson has fared worse than her young rival of late, losing her opening matches in both Doha and Dubai. She may have outlasted 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in a marathon Melbourne meeting, but in Qatar last week, she failed to assert herself during a winnable clash with the experienced but inconsistent Daniela Hantuchova, and limped to a disappointing straight sets defeat.
On Monday evening, in front of a sparse but enthusiastic crowd in Dubai, she played much better against another up-and-coming player, Yulia Putintseva. After losing the first set 6-2, Robson produced something close to her best tennis to take the second 6-4. In the decider, her unforced error count rose again, and she found herself a double break down at 5-2.
Once again, however, she recovered, fought back to force a tie-break, and had an excellent opportunity to clinch a morale-boosting comeback victory. But Putintseva was the steadier player in the closing stages, and Robson gifted her opponent the win with yet another wayward groundstroke. Shortly after the loss, Robson deactivated her Twitter account, suggesting that she too is finding it difficult to deal with the pressures and unwanted attention that are a result of success and fame.
There is no need for either young woman to panic just yet. Both are 19 years old, and have plenty of time to get used to the rigours of elite tennis, with its constant travelling and competing. Disheartening losses happen in sport, and they will benefit from a rest period before the tour moves to North America for the big Indian Wells/Miami tournaments.
But both Robson and Stephens will also have to cope with the change in expectations that a breakthrough result brings. They are no longer unknown challengers aiming for their first big scalp, but elite players who are supposed to beat their lower-ranked rivals. Cristea and Putuintseva considered their Dubai victories among the best of their careers so far, an indication that Stephens and Robson have gone from hunters to hunted. Managing this change in circumstances will be key to their future success.