Stephens loses her way … again

The learning curve is painful and cruel, and you can’t avoid it. It’s as if you’re driving down the road and your car automatically searches out and finds every last bump and pothole, even cliff.

For Sloane Stephens, American tennis hopeful, the problem is that you don’t know for sure which bumps you’ll eventually figure out how to clear easily and which ones you never will. Which ones will you learn from and which ones will define you.

Stephens ran off the cliff Tuesday at Wimbledon. She was playing brilliantly and beautifully, and then she was duped for the second time in three majors by someone pulling a veteran’s dirty trick on her. She lost 6-4, 7-5 to Marion Bartoli in the quarterfinals.

“I am disappointed in myself because I know I probably could have given a little bit more,” Stephens said. “You have to keep learning from it and keep moving forward.”

If you thought this tournament was a torch-passing from Serena Williams to Stephens, then take a deep breath and sit down for a minute. Williams, 31, lost in the fourth round but still is going to be the best player in the world for a while. And Stephens, 20, still is learning.

The curve gets everyone. Venus Williams reached the final of her first U.S. Open, at 17. Then she was crushed by Martina Hingis. Michael Jordan had to learn how to include his teammates.

That’s not to say Sloane Stephens is going to reach their heights. But Venus Williams is dropping off, and Stephens does represent the potential of life of American tennis after the Williams sisters, no matter how far she goes.

The problem is that an hour or so after the match, Stephens still didn’t seem to realize what had happened to her. She lost the first set on Bartoli’s trick — which I will get into in a minute — but she lost the second set because she forgot everything she was doing in the first set.

Things were working. She stopped doing them. In fact, it’s hard to say what she was doing in the second set, what her plan was. She went from genius in the first set to someone wandering aimlessly throughout the second.

These mental zone-outs already were a question mark about her. But focus is something you learn as you get older.

See what I mean? It’s impossible to know whether Stephens is going to do this her entire career, or learn from it. This might just be the pothole she continuously slams into.

Honestly: Watching her work the court and push Bartoli around in the first set, I saw something in her I never had before. This was exactly who she can be the rest of her career, mixing up slice serves with power, playing defense until an opening came to rip a forehand, running Bartoli all over the place.

The second set? Every past criticism of Stephens was valid.

She disappeared.

This tournament was such a study in Stephens. The book on her coming in: Incredible skills but a tendency to not fight hard enough. Sometimes she just blanks and doesn’t seem to be trying to build anything. Though she can crush a serve and a forehand, she rarely will just let it rip.

In the third round, she fought hard to come back and win the first set. Progress! Then, when the chair umpire didn’t agree with her that it was too dark to keep playing, Stephens fell apart, losing 6-0. She had ripped two serves and one forehand the whole match, winning all three points.

In the fourth round, she was pushed the whole way by prospect Monica Puig of Puerto Rico. And Stephens never quit fighting. You could see her growing on the spot. It’s why she won.

After that match, someone asked what she was most proud of.

“Just that I never gave up,” she said. “I have been in some tough situations. … Today I was down the whole time pretty much.”

And then in the quarterfinals Tuesday, she ripped a forehand on the first point. She was going to let it go and fight again. She was zeroed in, too. So what happened?

Stephens was down, 5-4, and saved two set points on her serve. A few deuces later, Bartoli decided to complain about the courts. She said the rain had made them slippery. She basically refused to continue.

Was it raining? Sitting courtside, I wasn’t even sure I’d say it was spitting. And Stephens didn’t think the court was too slippery to play on.

“It would have been nice to finish that game,” she said. “Coming back and serving at deuce, that’s always going to be tough for anyone.”

Bartoli said she was worried for her safety. And it’s true that this tournament has been filled with players falling all over the place, complaining about slippery grass. But I think Bartoli just wanted to get off the court and make Stephens stiffen up and think about her next big point for a while.

It was the same ploy then-No. 1 Victoria Azarenka pulled on Stephens in January during the Australian Open semifinals. She simply walked off, saying she was sick. It just so happened at the time that she was choking – not medically speaking but sports-performance speaking.

It worked then, killing off Stephens’ momentum. And it worked again Tuesday.

I asked Stephens if she thought Bartoli’s move was gamesmanship.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” she said. “Who knows?”

A few minutes later, it actually did begin raining. The delay lasted two hours, and Stephens said she started warming up three times, thinking they were going to play again. Then, she’d sit down and wait.

By the time they played again, Bartoli was ready. Stephens was not. The crowd, originally for Bartoli, started booing her. But Stephens lost the first two points and then the set. And then in the second set, she just sort of stopped all strategy.

That has been Stephens’ year. After her run at the Australian, she slumped until the French Open, winning two of eight matches at one point. Now, she reaches the quarters at Wimbledon.

This is where you find out who you are. But Stephens still has more potholes to hit.