The American, seeded third in the tournament, was beaten by the Latvian fifth seed in two straight sets 7-5, 6-3 in one hour and 28 minutes at the Hengqin International Tennis Centre.
Stephens, 24, was a first-round loser at the Wuhan Open and the China Open in Beijing before pulling out of Hong Kong, but insisted Monday she wasn’t feeling under pressure.
“I don’t think I played terribly,” she said of Wednesday’s match.
“I was happy to be playing better than my last matches, so that’s a good thing.”
French top seed Kristina Mladenovic was also defeated Wednesday by Slovakia’s number one Magdalena Rybarikova 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (5), in a tight match that saw Rybarikova squander six match points before finally sealing her victory.
Twenty-four-year-old Mladenovic, ranked at a career-high number 10, still has a chance to qualify for the semis but Rybarikova was confirmed out late Wednesday given the round robin format.
“(There were) ups and downs from my side, but… there’s a lot of things to take out from this match, lots of positives,” said Mladenovic, who is now on an 11-match losing streak.
But her first-match loss in Zhuhai also follows a recent poor run, including an upset by Croatian Jana Fett at the Japan Women’s Open in September, where she was again top seed.
Earlier in the season she reached the semi-finals at Indian Wells — a result which saw her break into the world top 20 for the first time, temporarily overtaking Caroline Garcia as French number one.
“(It was) a pretty unique season,” she said.
“The second part is dramatic, is terrible. The first part is also dramatic but in a positive way.”
Despite “the tricky journey”, the French number two said she had improved a lot.
Separately, the tournament’s youngest player and ninth seed Ashleigh Barty cruised to victory over Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in just one hour and 11 minutes, firing nine aces for a 6-4, 6-1 triumph.
The 21-year-old, who began the year ranked outside the top 300, made the final in Wuhan and recently became Australia’s top player.
“I feel like I’m playing really well this whole year,” she told media, adding that she wants to finish “strong”.
On Thursday she faces German Angelique Kerber who she met in Brisbane at the start of the season. Kerber, then world number one, survived a big scare from the Australian wildcard entry.
“I think I’m in a bit of a different position than I was in January when we played against each other,” Barty, now ranked 20 in the world, said.
Former world number one Angelique Kerber suffered defeat at the hands of Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on the first day of the WTA Elite Trophy Tuesday, a rough start for the German at the season-ending tournament.
Pavlyuchenkova, seeded fourth, beat 29-year-old Kerber 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 in one hour and 54 minutes at the Zhuhai Hengqin International Tennis Centre in southern China.
The eighth-seeded Kerber, who clinched both the Australian and US Open titles last year, still has a chance to qualify for the semis because of the round-robin format of the tournament.
Having struggled to find her feet in the first set, down 4-1 after the first five games, she managed to redeem herself in the second, gallantly holding serve in the third game and snatching a key break in game six before levelling the match.
The two traded service breaks at the start of the third set but it wasn’t long before the Russian had Kerber on the run.
“I was not playing good in the first set. I start to play my game actually in the second set, and then, yeah, I think at the end she won the deciding points,” she told media.
Earlier in the week the German, who has dropped from world number one in January to 19th, told AFP she had learned some lessons this year and was looking forward to a fresh start next season.
“I don’t think it’s the best year,” she told the post-match press conference.
“Today I was not able to play from the beginning my match and my game. So I was always having, like, up-and-downs, and that’s for sure not the game I can play.”
America’s Coco Vandeweghe earlier beat her Chinese wild card opponent.
The second seed downed China’s number one player Peng Shuai 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 in one hour and 55 minutes.
The 25-year-old had previously won only one match in her past four tournaments on Chinese soil.
She admitted starting off “sloppy” against Peng — the oldest player in the line up and ranked 27 in the world.
“Today was a survive and conquer kind of day, I really was playing not so well, very below average for the standard that I’m used to playing,” she told journalists.
“It’s a tough part of the year and a tough event… after the US Open it’s kinda, it’s, it’s rough, there’s no secret about that,” she said.
Peng had got off to a good start, securing the break in the second game and holding serve to give her a 3-0 lead.
But the American made a comeback in the second and third sets, losing serve just once.
“Today I felt that I played pretty well but then my opponent did even better,” said Peng, the crowd favourite, who also still has a shot at the semis.
The Elite Trophy features 12 players placed nine and below in world rankings, while those ranked eight and above made up the field for the WTA Finals in Singapore which ended Sunday.
Kristina Mladenovic says she is ready for a final “little push” at this week’s Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai at the end of what has been a roller coaster 2017 season for the Frenchwoman.
Her blistering form in the first half of the year included a thrilling run to the quarter-finals at Roland Garros and means that, despite struggling to match those results since, this has been the best year of her career.
The 24-year-old is currently on a 10-match losing streak, and is hoping she can finish the season on a high note, following a difficult stretch over the past three months.
Mladenovic is likely to be top seed in the high quality 12-player field when the WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai gets underway on Tuesday October 31 after breaking into the world’s top 10 in the year-end rankings for the first time earlier this week.
She is looking to build on that success this coming week, knowing that if she recaptures her form in Zhuhai it could provide her with the perfect foundation for next year.
“Definitely this is a chance to set the tone for 2018,” said Mladenovic.
“The second half of this season was a real struggle for me but the positive note for me is that I now feel better physically and I managed to sort out the physical problem that I had. I feel kind of refreshed. And I would like to compete better and play better and the results can also come in Zhuhai.
“Just to feel part of it is also a chance to relax in a way because it’s a great achievement and after a long year you can just give a little push and then afterwards you can absolutely relax, take time off, think with your team what was good and what was not good and start to build for the next season.”
Mladenovic claimed the first title of her career earlier this year in St. Petersburg and reached three more finals in Acapulco, Stuttgart and Madrid.
Zhuhai field announced pic.twitter.com/gJGuFff0cP
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) October 25, 2017
“The year was pretty big for me. Many great lessons for me, let’s say. I had a huge six months of the year and then I struggled a little bit and I was unlucky with injury but I always say that things are happening in life for a reason and at least I feel like I have learned so much from this year in every way,” she said.
“To have my best year, to be in Singapore as an alternate first of all made me extremely proud because I know many would love to be there.
“The reward is also to play in Zhuhai and I heard it’s an amazing event from some of the players who came last year. Some of those who competed there last year qualified for Singapore the following year and the other way around, so the field is very strong.
“It’s a very big event and the WTA and the organisers are putting in lots of effort. I’m actually very excited because to be in one of the year-end events is big goal. I’m looking forward to visiting the area as well because I have never been there and I’m excited to go and compete there with the other girls.”