Cincinnati: Stephens d. Sharapova
Bouncing on her toes and taking shadow swings between points, Maria Sharapova looked like a woman going places as she won eight of the first 10 games, reducing Sloane Stephens to muttering frustrations to her support box.
Then the 20-year-old American took appropriate action: She stopped griping and started ripping shots into the corners. Turning a rout into revival, Stephens spoiled Sharapova's tour return, bouncing the 2011 Cincinnati champion out of the tournament with a 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory.
This was Sharapova's first match since her surprising second-round loss to No. 131 Michelle Larcher de Brito at Wimbledon, and her first with new coach Jimmy Connors in her corner. Connors, looking like a college professor with a white button-down shirt and glasses, and Sharapova will have some homework before the U.S. Open begins on August 26.
Sharapova could not find the court for stretches of the decisive set, finishing with almost four times as many unforced errors (62) as winners (16). But she showed little signs of rust in the opener, charging out to a 4-1 lead.
The 17th-ranked Stephens had failed to win a set from Sharapova in three prior meetings, but she began to find her range, stamping successive holds at 15 for 2-4. Sharapova slammed a running forehand down the line, eventually holding at 15 for 5-2 before closing the 30-minute opener with her second break. Stephens' coach, David Nainkin, urged his charge to step it up before the second set began.
"Dictate a little more. Take it to her a little more," Nainkin said as Sharapova, clad in a mint sleeveless top, sat with her eyes closed in a meditative state.
Stephens is quicker around the court than Sharapova. She can play attacking tennis or defend, but sometimes doesn't seem sure which tact to take, and when her mind drifts her shots can stray. She earned three break points in the seventh game of the second set, but Sharapova fended off the threat, holding for 4-3.
Nerves were evident as Sharapova double-faulted off the tape to open the pivotal tiebreaker. At 4-all, the Russian leaned on a forehand up the line but missed the mark, and Stephens slammed a heavy serve into her opponent's hip for double set point. Sharapova saved the first, then the two went toe-to-toe in one of the best exchanges of the match. Stephens refused to back off the the baseline, drawing the error to take the 66-minute second-set and level the match.
Sharapova departed for a bathroom break, trying to reset after a sloppy set, but things got worse as her flat strikes began to expire in the net. She dumped her sixth and seventh double faults to drop serve and fall into a 1-3 hole, and Stephens backed up the break for a 4-1 lead. Sharapova has been a terror in three-set matches, winning 19 of her last 21 three-setters, but Stephens stood up to the pace in the final set and Sharapova's normally reliable ground game disintegrated.
But closure was complicated. Stephens double-faulted on her first two match points, eliciting collective groans from the crowd, then fought off a break point when Sharapova netted a forehand. One final error from the Russian ended it as Stephens' mother, Sybil, broke into a wide smile and pumped her fist to her daughter.
"No one beats me four times in a row, so I guess I had to win tonight," said a smiling Stephens, scoring her second career Top 5 win following her Australian Open victory over Serena Williams.