Fresh start for Sloane Stephens

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Her final match in Melbourne a year ago came on the grand, raucous stage of Rod Laver Arena. More than 15,000 jammed the lively venue wondering if Sloane Stephens could carve out another upset.

But after stunning fellow American Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, the 19-year-old Stephens went quietly in her first career major semifinal, losing to Victoria Azarenka in straight sets.

Her first-round match in 2014 was, well, not exactly all that.

"I know, Court 6," Stephens said Tuesday after beating Yaroslava Shvedova 7-6 (1), 6-3. "No, it was OK. It didn't matter. They didn't have like any gate people. So anyone can just walk through when they want.

"So it was interesting."

That would also describe the state of American tennis.

Williams, of course, is the No. 1 player in the world and is expected to bull-rush the field in Melbourne and win her fifth Grand Slam singles title in her past seven tries. After that, it gets a little sketchy.

John Isner, the top-ranked U.S. man, at No. 13, limped away from his first-round match with a foot injury. Believe it or not, Sam Querrey, who won his second-round match Wednesday, is second at No. 51.

On Thursday, however, we have a nice little American card, featuring the No. 13-ranked Stephens versus No. 67 Ajla Tomljanovic of Croatia. There are four other Americans playing, but they're all facing more dangerous, seeded players.

Stephens, thus, will be the only one favored to win. She never quite matched that auspicious opening of 2013, but she reached at least the fourth round of the season's last three Grand Slams and was a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon. Because, at 20, she is the youngest player in the WTA's top 30 (Canada's Eugenie Bouchard, 19, is No. 31), many are curious to see how she will back up 2013, when she won 39 of 62 matches.

The smartest thing Stephens' team did in the offseason was hire coach Paul Annacone, who had parted ways with 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer. Annacone is likely to have a calming, stabilizing effect on the sometimes excitable Stephens.

Does she feel pressure as a defending semifinalist?

"No," she said. "Paul says we're starting from zero, so we're just going to go with that. Not too much stress I'm putting on myself, because in the end it's just a whole bunch of pressure that I don't need."

After her first-round victory, Williams was asked if, going forward, anything concerned her in Australia.

"I just have to stay out of my way," she said, "and I'll be fine. As long as I'm able to stay relaxed, I'll be OK."

With few viable threats in her quarter of the draw -- No. 17 Samantha Stosur and No. 14 Ana Ivanovic are pretty much it -- Serena probably won't have to meet anyone of Stephens' caliber until the semifinals. This year, Stephens, who is in the bottom half of the draw, could be No. 2 seed Azarenka's problem.

The rest of Thursday's matches featuring Americans:

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