Australian Open 2013: Sloane Stephens shocks idol Serena Williams
Australian Open 2013: Sloane Stephens shocks five-time champion Serena Williams to reach the semi-finals in Melbourne
After they competed on a tennis court for the first time, a few short weeks ago in Brisbane, Serena Williams had high praise for the teenage American she had just beaten. Sloane Stephens, she considered, could be a future No1.
But even Williams could not have predicted that the 19-year-old from the Sunshine State—and with a smile to match—would displace her so soon in a Grand Slam.
The shock came in their three-set, two-and-a-quarter hour quarterfinal match at the Australian Open, and it saw Williams, unbeaten in her last 20 matches and in the last two Grand Slams, beaten, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.
The enormity of Stephens achieved is spelled out in their histories: On the Williams side, 47 titles—amongst them 15 Grand Slams, five of them in Melbourne—and $42 million in prize money; on the Stephens side, one title, winnings of $0.7 million and playing in only her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
But Stephens has been rising fast. She is not just the highest-ranked teenager in the world but is also the No29 seed in Melbourne—and was already set to break the top-20 with her run here.
It looked as though that would be the limit, though, as Williams had advanced through the Australian season in stunning form, winning her last 27 sets and dropping only eight games on her route to the quarters in Melbourne. And she built a substantial lead in this match, too.
Both players dominated on serve in the opener with each receiver winning a total of just two points until the eighth game. Then Williams broke for a 5-3 lead and served out the set in 28 minutes.
She was soon 6-3, 2-0 up, but the momentum changed dramatically when Williams, already concerned by an ankle injury sustained in the first round, appeared to twinge her back when chasing a drop shot in the eighth game of the second set. She took a medical timeout for what tournament officials revealed to be spasms.
Stephens, unfazed by playing her idol, the woman whose poster she has on her bedroom wall, took full advantage and battled her way to the second set. She then stayed with Williams, whose serve was never as potent as in her previous matches, until 3-3 in the decider.
Williams made what looked like a decisive break to lead, 4-3, but with the match now at two hours, the Williams body could not resist the attack of the teenager, and Stephens broke back immediately.
She did so again on Williams’ next serve, pounding her returns deep into the court to draw one final error, Williams’ 48th of the match. This time, it was also match point, and the biggest shock of the tournament thus far was complete.
Stephens is the first American teenager to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam since Williams did so at the 2001 US Open, and the first American teenager other than the Williams sisters to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam since 1999.
Williams later described it as her “worst ever two weeks” at a Grand Slam tournament: “I’m almost relieved that it’s over because there’s only so much I felt I could do.”
As well as her ankle injury, for which she was still taking anti-inflammatory tablets, Williams was also referring to a self-inflicted racket injury to the face in the second round and then the back complaint that became a liability during the quarterfinal.
Her frustration with it all came to a head with a smashed racket during this match—“Did you see it? I even had a wry smile on my lips after that”—but she afterwards had praise for her opponent:
“I think my opponent played well and was able to do a really good job. She’s a good player. She runs fast and she gets a lot of balls back. That’s always a plus to have in your career.”
And Stephens, sounding every inch the teenager she is, could not take the smile off her face:
“Last night someone asked me, ‘Do you think you can win?’ I thought about it and I was like, ‘Yeah, I think so,’ but I wasn’t too clear about it.
“This morning when I got up, I was like, ‘Dude, like, you can do this. Like go out and play and do your best.’ I think I was convinced I was able to do it when I lost serve in the first game in the second set and went down 2-0. I was like, ‘Hmm, this is not the way you want it to happen. But just fight and just get every ball back, run every ball down, and just get a lot of balls in play. I think you’ll be okay.
“From then on I got aggressive, started coming to the net more, and just got a lot more comfortable. I kind of just played my game from there.”
Indeed it is this aggressive mindset and her net skills that make Stephens such an exciting prospect for the game. She won 18 out of 20 net points in this match, and made as many winners as Williams.
She will now need both that aggression and her uninhibited self-belief to reach the final here—a quite astonishing prospect—as she faces defending champion Victoria Azarenka in the semis. The No1 seed has dropped only one set in her otherwise serene progress to the semis—and that was to another young rising star in the American firmament, Jamie Hampton.
And that may provide just the little extra incentive that the girl from Florida needs to produce another major shock not just at the Australia Open but in women’s tennis around the world.