In Miami, defending champion Stephens has no answers for Maria

In Miami, defending champion Stephens has no answers for Maria

The American was outplayed by the 31-year-old German, who only had two Top 10 wins before this match.

This time last year, Sloane Stephens was on her way to winning her first Premier Mandatory title at the Miami Open. On Sunday, however, her efforts to defend that title were derailed by No. 62-ranked Tatjana Maria, who knocked her out in the third round, 6-3, 6-2.

Stephens, who had beaten Maria last summer in their only previous meeting, didn’t have any answers today. In the first set, she only had one breakpoint opportunity. But more importantly, there were eight against her, three of them converted.

In the second set, the German kept the pressure on, causing the No. 4 seed to hit plenty of unforced errors. She was broken several times as she was not able figure out Maria’s crafty game, who never allowed the American to sink her teeth into the match.

"She's a great player, she plays with a lot of variations and she's a tricky opponent," Stephens said. She just played the better match today." 

Maria will face 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova, who upset Elise Mertens, in the fourth round.

"I could not be happier right now," Maria said. "I think I played at home, because I live here. It was helping me a lot. My family, everybody's here, my friends and I think it helps.

"My game is pretty special, so I knew that tonight I had a chance. I played two times against Sloane, so I knew what to expect."

As for the American, it's back to the drawing board. Maybe it's time for her to hire a new coach—she split with Kamau Murray, who helped her win first Grand Slam, at the end of last season. But one thing is for certain: she’s having a tough season thus far. After ending 2018 on a high note by reaching the final at the season-ending WTA Finals, she started her 2019 season with an opening-round loss at Brisbane. She followed that defeat with an early exit in Sydney. At the Australian Open, she lost a tough three-setter to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the fourth round. Back at home in North America, she was sent packing early in Acapulco and Indian Wells.

Perhaps we shouldn't read too much into her slump since she had a similar start in 2018, and eventually turned it around with a Miami Open title run. She went on to reach the finals of two big events—the French Open and Rogers Cup—losing to Simona Halep in both. At Rolland Garros, she was four games away from winning her second Major before falling to the Romanian.

Stephens is scheduled to play Volvo Car Open in Charleston next week, a kick-off to the clay court tennis season—she won the tournament in 2016.

"I'm looking forward to getting back on the clay, my favorite surface. Hopefully, I can get some momentum and try to play some good tennis in the clay court season."