Take Daniel Evans’ win over the higher-ranked Bernard Tomic here in New York. A few months ago, Tomic’s father cancelled a practice with his son because Evans was “only a qualifier”. The Briton’s win was just a little sweeter as a result.
So when Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens were drawn in the same segment of their home Grand Slam at Flushing Meadows, it was a standout. For the two of them, the 31-year-old defending champion, and the 20-year-old rising star often seen as her protégé, had a public falling out this spring.
It began with an interview Stephens gave to ESPN The Magazine, in which she said the Williams had not spoken to her since the younger woman beat her in the Australian Open quarter-finals.
“She’s not said one word to me, not spoken to me, not said hi, not looked my way, not been in the same room with me since I played her in Australia. And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter. They think she’s so friendly and she’s so this and she’s so that—no, that’s not reality! You don’t unfollow someone on Twitter, delete them off of BlackBerry Messenger. I mean, what for?”
Williams would not be drawn into commenting on the report, and the two women subsequently played on the same US Fed Cup team where, according to reports, they got on fine. And at Wimbledon, when Williams lost in the fourth round, she tipped Stephens as a possible winner—and also talked of her as a favourite here. Oil on the waters, perhaps, but, as the draw has narrowed down to the sought-after meeting, both have stuck to the friendly script in New York:
Williams: “I think it will be a good match. I think she’s playing really well. I’ll have a really tough match. I definitely don’t feel like I’m going in there as a favourite because she’s playing great, even though I’m playing good, too. She really has nothing to lose and she excels in situations like that. So I think she’ll be really good.”
And asked to comment on Stephens’ cool assessment of their relationship as ‘teammates’: “I think, yeah, we’re team-mates. I mean, I’ve always really liked Sloane. I have a lot of respect for Sloane. I think she’s a great girl. I think she’s great for tennis, as well.”
In response to Williams’ praise, Stephens was effusive: “Coming from one of the greatest players to ever play the game, that feels really good. I think it’s awesome…I think she wants the best from me and I appreciate that.
“She’s a great competitor, one of the best players to ever play the game—like I said, co-worker, teammate. I mean, there is not much else you can say. Just praise her.”
In truth, it was an interesting match even without the personal baggage. Williams has been playing better tennis in the last year or so than at almost any time in her career. Stephens has been tipped for the top—with a not entirely different big-hitting game from Williams—ever since she became the youngest player in the year-end top 100 in 2011. By the end of 2012, she was at 38, the only teenager in the top 50.
Now in just her third season of Grand Slams, she has notched up a semi finish at the Australian Open, fourth round at Roland Garros and the quarters at Wimbledon to reach New York ranked No16. She scored a win over Maria Sharapova in Cincinnati but it was her performance in Melbourne that made the headlines—then and now.
Williams was, lest it be forgotten, suffering from a back problem during her match with Stephens at the Australian Open, and far from her best , but the exuberance and shot-making of the young player captured fans and plaudits.
So what of this rematch, almost nine months down the road? Williams, playing in her 14th US Open, has reclaimed the No1 ranking—the oldest ever to do so—with a run of 63 wins to just three losses. She has won eight titles to equal her career best, and won the French Open that she last won more than a decade earlier.
And her hot form was there for all to see the opening rounds in New York: eight games lost in three matches. It was also there for all to see in the early stages of this match. She dropped just one point in her first three service games, and went after Stephens’ serve with the kind of intensity and fire-power that would intimidate the most confident player.
And to Stephens’ credit, she came up with the goods to resist, even though she had to defend three break points and defend multiple deuces in the fourth game. It lasted eight and a half minutes, the match was 21 minutes old, and it was still level at 2-2.
But on her next serve, Stephens could not fend off two more break chances, as Williams pounded a blistering cross-court forehand winner to lead 4-2.
That was not the end of it, though. Against all odds, Williams double faulted twice to hand the break back, and Stephens fought off a break point to level 4-4.
The younger woman was really proving her worth, and her forehand down the line must be one of the finest in the women’s game. She scored several winners on that wing, usually after opening up the court with fluid deep ground strokes to alternating sides of the court. Williams had to draw on all her athleticism and defensive skills to track them down. And after another flawless love hold, she broke to take the set 6-4, but it took three attempts: A measure of Stephens’ quality.
The younger player’s resistance continued in the opening two games of the second set and she came tantalizingly close to breaking the defending champion, but netted a volley on break point. She then faced the same test and survived: It had taken 14 minutes to reach 1-1.
And then, in the blink of an eye, Williams wrenched control. Another 20 minutes, and she had taken five games in a row to seal the match, 6-1. On a day when men drooped and floundered in the oppressive, humid heat, Serena looked as cool and calm in shaking Stephens’ hand at the net as she had at the start.
So super-Serena made her point, and also threw down the gauntlet to the rest: She is surely as fit, strong and focused now as she was in her first record-breaking year more than 10 years ago.
She talked afterwards of Roger Federer and his fitness: “I think Roger is a great player. I mean, he’s done so much for the game and the sport. He’s just an unbelievable athlete and unbelievable player. He’s been playing for a long time in his career. [Compared with Rafa], if you’re going by numbers, Roger still has more Grand Slams.”
She is just a month younger than Federer but played her first Major a year before him, won her first Major four years before he did, and has accumulated not just 16 singles Slams to his 17 but also 13 doubles titles with her sister—and she continues in the doubles competition here.
By any measure, she is one of the athletes of her era—man or woman, any sport. No wonder that one more woman, even of Stephens’ talent, came off the worse once more in New York.