JOHANNESBURG — Indian Wells champ U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens battled a sore neck and a short game plan before falling in a second-round upset to fellow American and world No. 55 Emma Nicholas in the WTA Championships on Thursday.
Stephens, returning from a foot injury that forced her to miss two months, looked like she had her issues with a weak service game on her serve after serving one double fault in the first two games against her 10th-seeded opponent.
Nicholas, who is in her first WTA final, held her serve in the fifth game and used her playmaking skills to break Stephens’s serve in the seventh game.
A forehand error by Stephens gave Nicholas her first set point and she took advantage on the next point, hitting a backhand volley winner down the line for a 6-4, 6-4 win.
Nicholas overpowered Stephens with her serve, winning 15 of 20 points on her second serve. Stephens dropped to 1-10 lifetime against wild cards, with both victories coming in last year’s French Open.
Nicholas improved to 2-0 against the American, despite losing their only previous meeting in Miami in April.
Stephens, beaten by Serena Williams in the Indian Wells final, won four straight games after breaking Nicholas’s serve to get into the match.
But Stephens struggled to find her groundstrokes after starting out so badly. She finished with six double faults, two of which came in the opening game of the second set.
The three-time Grand Slam title winner missed the Miami Open in March and the French Open last month while recuperating from a foot injury. But she has reached her first title in four months, capturing the Miami Open earlier this month.
Stephens’ withdrawal in Miami was her first in 70 career WTA events, a career which was shortened by her foot injury.
To accommodate her withdrawal, Williams opted to eliminate doubles in the season-ending WTA Championships and thus allowed her doubles partner to play her in mixed doubles.
Williams and Ivanovic have combined to win three Grand Slam doubles titles, including at Wimbledon last month.
On Thursday, neither Williams nor Ivanovic was present in the mixed doubles event.
It’s her second loss in a row to American Nicholas after the pair were upset in the Round of 16 at Stanford earlier this year.
Stephens will next face 17th-seeded German Sabine Lisicki in Friday’s quarterfinals.
“(Nicholas) plays with a lot of confidence and knows how to play really well,” Stephens said. “I have to cut some slack. She was playing really well.”
Ivanovic plays Sloane Stephens in the quarterfinals after she beat Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands 6-1, 6-2 in Thursday’s late match.
Ivanovic needed just 55 minutes to get past Bertens in the last match of the night, needing just 26 minutes to win the first set before moving on.
“Even though it’s the first round of a Grand Slam, it’s kind of like a big match. It’s always the big matches,” Ivanovic said. “To be honest, to me, it doesn’t feel any different.”
Seventh-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska, who won last year’s WTA Championships, won her first-round match over Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands 6-3, 6-3.
Ashleigh Barty of Australia became the second Australian to reach the quarterfinals of the WTA Championships, holding off Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-7 (2), 6-2, 6-2.
Barty will next face Czech Petra Kvitova, who reached the semifinals with a 7-6 (5), 6-2 win over United States wild card Sloane Stephens.
Estonian Kaia Kanepi beat German Carina Witthoeft 6-2, 6-3 to reach the quarterfinals. Kanepi, who won the Australian Open last month and has never made it beyond the semifinals at the WTA Finals, will face Radwanska, who beat Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands 6-3, 6-3.
Russian Ekaterina Makarova beat Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 to reach the quarterfinals. Makarova will face Elina Svitolina, who beat Spanish qualifier Garbine Muguruza 6-4, 6-4.
France’s Caroline Garcia also reached the last eight with a 6-2, 6-2 win over last year’s runner-up Czech Karolina Pliskova. Garcia will face Wang Qiang of China.