Considering Stephens entered the Australian Open with a seven-match losing streak since winning the US Open, her loss to China's Zhang Shuai in the first round Monday wasn't a big surprise. But what was a surprise? The upbeat, happy, almost carefree manner in which Stephens shrugged off the result.
Stephens knows she should have won. She served for the match at 5-4 in the second set only to falter 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2. It seemed just like the latest loss in a long, depressing run of form. But for someone whose default mode in recent weeks has been more surly than sunny, Stephens shook off the shackles and spoke of karma, her inner belief and happiness with rare perspective.?
"Tennis is definitely a roller coaster," Stephens said. "But I have learned to not panic. It will be OK. There are always going to be times when it's really tough, and there will be times when you're on an extreme high. I think for me now, it's not that great, but it's nothing to panic about, guys."
When someone wins a big event, in any sport, it is human nature, or maybe journalistic nature, to expect them to keep winning, to be consistently on top form. When they don't, the natural tendency is to wonder what is wrong, even speculate that it is something more profound than a simple defeat.
Stephens, 24, dashed that theory, promising that she will win again someday and pleaded with the media on hand in her news conference to cheer up. Worrying about things won't do her any good, so she's simply not going to do it. It was a revelation.
"I think winning the US Open, it's just never going to be enough for certain people -- people who talk about [tennis] and you guys who write it about it," Stephens said. "But as long as it's enough for me and I feel good that I have done what I can to progress and do whatever I can for my personal career, that's OK.
"Before, I would get so upset about what people would write and say things about me on TV and blah, blah, blah, and now it's, like, who cares? I won a Grand Slam. I'm going through a tough time. Who cares? No one cares about my life. I'm just having fun. I'm enjoying it. There's too much emphasis on the bad things that happen after something really great happens. That kind of sucks, but it is what it is."
As she did in her pre-tournament news conference, Stephens admitted she had been somewhat overwhelmed by the changes in her life since her victory at Flushing Meadows, but she'll find the balance in time.
"I'm not going to dwell on it just because I lost eight matches in a row and say, 'Oh, winning the US Open, it's haunting me now,'" Stephens said. "No. It's the best thing that ever happened to me, and probably until I win another tournament or something else happens, it's going to continue to be. I'm just going to build off it and find the right balance and make sure can I get back to playing the way I was."
Stephens was asked if she thought her bad patch was karma, a downturn after her golden run last summer. No, she said. Karma, to her, is doing the right things in life and being rewarded in the end.
"I always try to be the best person I can, the best version of me," she said. "Like I said, you'll be rewarded. Tough times don't last. When I had foot surgery in January , I thought it was the worst thing ever. It was like I was being punished for whatever reason. But I really wasn't being punished. It was just, I was being set up for something greater. That's kind of how you've got to look at it."
Her victory at the US Open showed that when things are going right, she can be a world-beater. Maybe she won't be the kind of player who wins week in, week out -- someone who dominates on the tour. Maybe she doesn't even want to be that player. But she is happy doing her thing. She'll be all right.