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Black Tennis Week

Sloane Stephens works her way back from foot injury

Former Citi Open champion falls in first round but is still alive in doubles

Sloane Stephens is not interested in participation trophies. She didn’t take solace in knowing she pushed world No. 2 Simona Halep to a 7-6 (3) decision in the first set of their first-round Citi Open match.

Playing in only her second match of the season since taking almost a year off to recover from a foot injury, Stephens fell to top-seeded Halep in straight sets, 7-6 (7-3), 6-0, on Tuesday afternoon. Asked if there were any highlights or moments she was pleased with in that competitive opening set, Stephens said no.

The 2015 Citi Open champion is only interested in returning to the form that carried her to the 2013 Australian Open semifinals, the same tournament in which she defeated perennial power Serena Williams.

“I think I’ve played a certain way for a long time,” Stephens said. “To make errors that I normally wouldn’t make — even though I haven’t played in a year — is still very frustrating.

“So I think it was more why did I miss that shot … It was just hard. Coming back, you don’t know what to expect from yourself. I didn’t play badly. I played the No. 2 in the world. I played a good first set. It’s just frustrating the stuff you have to deal with.”

Last August, Stephens traveled to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics. She lost to Canada’s Genie Bouchard in the first round then withdrew from the US Open a few weeks later with a right foot injury. She sat out the remainder of the year.

Six months later, Stephens was in Sydney prepared to play in the Australian Open when she was informed she had a stress fracture and cyst, which resulted in surgery and sidelining her until she played in the first round of Wimbledon last month. Stephens has played World TeamTennis since Wimbledon to get back to match speed.

“It’s going to take a while to get that consistency back and get more matches under my belt,” Stephens said.

The 24-year-old will get another opportunity to play this week as she and Bouchard are paired for the Citi Open doubles tournament.

In the post-match news conference, Stephens was cracking jokes, laughing and in a jovial mood. It’s clear she understands this won’t be a quick climb back to her former No. 11 WTA ranking.

The recovery has been long, but Stephens is just riding the waves and trusting the process.

“I just have to play a lot of matches,” she said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take me, but eventually I will beat someone. I’m not too worried about that.

“I have to remind myself that it’s been like 10 months, and I haven’t hit a ball and played a match, so that’s a little bit difficult. As I play more matches and back-to-back weeks, my fitness will be there. The conditioning, the match play, it’ll all come together.”

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.