A loss by Venus Williams in the first round at a Grand Slam is no longer the rarity it once was.
And, as it happens, the woman who beat Williams at the French Open on Tuesday, Sloane Stephens, is making a concerted effort, at her coach’s behest, to focus less on who is on the other side of the net.
Still, it was hard not to see the 22-year-old Stephens’ 7-6 (5), 6-1 dismissal of seven-time major champion Williams, who at 34 was the oldest woman in the field, as a statement about the directions their respective careers are heading.
For the 15th-seeded Williams, it was her second opening defeat in three years at Roland Garros.
It also was the fifth time in the last 13 Grand Slam tournaments she’s entered that she exited in the first round. Before that stretch, it happened once in 37 majors.
Williams didn’t show up for a news conference, meaning she could face a fine. Instead, she issued a five-sentence statement that read in part: “When you arrive at any tournament, you hope you will have a chance to work your way into the event, but I didn’t have that opportunity — she just played better than me today.”
That is true.
The 40th-ranked Stephens, who has reached the French Open’s fourth round the last three years, was consistently strong from the baseline, making only 14 unforced errors to Williams’ 30.
“I want her to play with a sense of joy … and play everything as well as she can, relentlessly, and not be concerned with the result. Let the result take care of itself. And she did a good job of that today,” said Stephens’ coach, Nick Saviano.
“I have noticed that missing. … For any athlete, in any sport, at any high level, they must have that passion and the joy to perform,” Saviano explained. “Otherwise, it becomes onerous. It becomes too much of a job, so to speak.”
The biggest victory of Stephens’ career came at the 2013 Australian Open, when she defeated Williams’ younger sister Serena en route to the semifinals.
This was the first time Stephens had faced Venus Williams, other than beating her in an exhibition as a teen.
“But,” Stephens said, “I don’t think that really counts.”
Now Stephens joins Lindsay Davenport as the only Americans to have beaten each Williams at a Grand Slam tournament.
Two other seeded women lost Monday: No. 14 Agnieszka Radwanska, who was the runner-up at Wimbledon in 2012, and No. 22 Barbora Strycova. Two seeded men exited, too, including No. 11 Feliciano Lopez, who now has 10 first-round exits in 15 appearances in Paris.
Winners included No. 3 Andy Murray, who played with his wedding ring tied to his shoe and improved to 11-0 since getting married, and defending women’s champion Maria Sharapova.
She was jeered off Court Philippe Chatrier for skipping the customary post-match interview, citing a cold. Sharapova coughed repeatedly while getting past Kaia Kanepi 6-2, 6-4, and when asked later about not talking to the fans, she said their reaction was “absolutely normal … but I’ve got to do what I have to do.”
Stephens was reserved during her on-court interview, referring to Williams as “someone we all looked up to for so long,” but hardly celebrating as if this meant a lot to her.
“I think she’s pleased. But she wants to perform well every day. She doesn’t want to make a big deal out of one match,” Saviano said. “And she shouldn’t.”
Stephens — whose late father, John Stephens, was the 1988 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with the New England Patriots, and whose mother, Sybil Smith, was Boston University’s first All-American in women’s swimming — was composed throughout the match, finding the spots for her deep groundstrokes.
OK, truth be told, she did lose her composure once.
Holding a break point in the second set’s second game, Stephens was preparing to receive a serve when the ball hit by Williams startled a pigeon, which flapped its wings and took off. Stephens, in turn, was startled and released quite a shriek. Instead of an ace, the point was replayed, and Williams flubbed a shot to get broken.
“It was a very dramatic moment, I would say,” Stephens said with a smile. “First of all, I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was way closer to me than it actually was. So that was … why I screamed so loud.”