Sharapova stumbles, Stephens soars

CINCINNATI -- The new alliance between Maria Sharapova and coach Jimmy Connors had its much-awaited debut at the Western & Southern Open on Tuesday night.

Suffice it to say that the first showing didn't open to rave reviews, which canceled any notion of a second show being scheduled this week.

Sharapova went from a comfortable 6-2, 2-0 lead over Sloane Stephens -- which seemed to speak well for her initial few weeks under Connors' tutelage -- to becoming increasingly perplexed as she lost control of the match.

The 17th-ranked Stephens had never before won five games in a set against Sharapova, but found her form to orchestrate a 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 second-round win at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

"I thought I started the match off pretty well, but when you put yourself in a really good position, you can't let it go," said the third-ranked Sharapova, playing for the first time since losing in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

"That's what I did tonight. I stopped being patient. I started making a lot more errors, especially off the first ball. Obviously, I haven't played in a long time, but I can't make that excuse for myself because I've got to be ready from the first match."

On Monday, Sharapova spoke to why she selected Connors to be her new mentor.

"He's been there and done that -- he's been through a lot of things," she said. "He knows what it's like in certain situations in a match. I wasn't looking for somebody to come in and change things in my game drastically, especially at 26 years old. It's not really what I was looking for. It's more the understanding, the knowledge and someone who will motivate and push me at the right times when I need it."

While on one level her reasoning for picking Connors makes sense, in another way it seems a curious decision.

Choosing a high-profile coach such as Connors puts a great deal of pressure on Sharapova -- theirs can never be a relationship that's going to slide by without scrutiny. Nevertheless, she walked away from the disappointing evening feeling good about having Connors in her corner.

"It's great to have his support," Sharapova said. "I'm enjoying being part of his experience and him."

On the flip side to Sharapova's unraveling, Stephens displayed continued proof that her future could be as bright as expected.

The 20-year-old settled into the match after struggling in the first set, and capably took advantage of the opening Sharapova presented. It also helped that she called her coach, David Nainkin, down to the court for a chat, and he urged her to become more aggressive on every point.

"I was playing terribly, but at the start of the second I was just going to start going for my shots a little more and hopefully they'll just go in," said Stephens of her change in match strategy. "It wasn't going well at all, but I was glad I started hitting and finding a rhythm, and that kind of helped me out."

Despite Stephens' turnaround, it's hard to ignore that she experienced some serious jitters while closing out the match. In the final game, she double-faulted away her first two match points before taking a third with a little help from Sharapova, who smacked a forehand wide.

"I rarely double-fault, so for me to double-fault twice on both match points was a little flustering, but I was glad to get through it," she said.

Stephens gets to add this upset to the growing list of her achievements, which are highlighted by reaching her first career Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open in January and the Wimbledon quarterfinals in July. Those results, which included upsetting Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals, have garnered Stephens a reputation as a big-event player.

After the Sharapova win, Stephens made light of coming up with an impressive win at a non-Grand Slam event, chuckling as she rolled her eyes, and said, "It's a new experience for me winning at smaller tournaments. It's definitely, yeah, a new experience, but it's all fun."

So while Sharapova was altering her plans of a week in Cincinnati and instead likely heading to Florida to train for the U.S. Open, Stephens is in preparation mode for a third-round match against Jelena Jankovic. And to make sure that her nagging abdominal muscle strain won't act up, she took a precautionary measure.

"I actually feel fine, so that's good," said Stephens, donning an ice wrap around her stomach. "But the ice baby comes everywhere with me. This is Frankie. I don't know [why its Frankie]. I named something else that I got Frankie, so everything is just Frankie now."