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:

No. 62 Christina McHale versus No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki: One of the biggest headlines produced by a tennis player in recent days was the announcement that Wozniacki is engaged to golfer Rory McIlroy. The Dane, who was ranked No. 1 for 67 weeks, hasn't been the force she once was, but she's reached at least the fourth round in Melbourne three years running. McHale, a 21-year-old from New Jersey, would equal her best Grand Slam effort with a win Thursday. It could happen; she holds a 2-1 head-to-head advantage, including a 2012 win on the grass at Eastbourne.

No. 50 Varvara Lepchenko versus No. 11 Simona Halep: The two have never met, but Halep is coming off a breakthrough season. The 22-year-old Romanian won the first six singles titles of her career; only Williams won more. Lepchenko, who posted a career-best No. 21 ranking in 2012, slipped to No. 53 last season.

No. 91 Donald Young versus No. 24 Andreas Seppi: It seems like the Donald has been around forever, but he's still only 24. That's how it goes when you turn professional at the age of 15. Young is trying to reach the third round in Melbourne for the first time in five tries. Seppi took out Aussie favorite Lleyton Hewitt in a barn burner of a first-round, five-set match that went more than four hours.

No. 95 Jack Sock versus No. 25 Gael Monfils: A year ago, the 21-year-old Lincoln, Neb., product fell in the first round of qualifying in both Brisbane and Melbourne. "Little bit of a disaster for me down here," he said after beating No. 12-ranked Tommy Haas a week ago in Auckland. "Coming in this year, I'm definitely in a better position." Sock beat Germany's Tobias Kamke in his first-round match. This is his first Australian Open main draw. The elastic Frenchman Monfils has reached at least the third round in Melbourne the past six times he played.

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