Sloane's steady step
The young American showed she has the game to make it big, reaching the semifinals in Melbourne
What was supposed to be a learning experience against one of the greatest tennis players in history turned into one of the biggest surprises in tennis history last week when 19-year-old Sloane Stephens introduced herself to a global audience by rallying to defeat Serena Williams at the Australian Open.
Williams is a 15-time Grand Slam singles champion and was the No 3 seed and heavy favourite at Melbourne, but what made the result all the more unexpected was that she has been as dominant of late as she has been in the past: sweeping to the Wimbledon, Olympic and US Open titles last year and winning 20 straight matches coming into the quarterfinal against Stephens. But the streak and Williams’ newfound tranquillity on court came crashing to a halt as the senior pro, limited and frustrated by a back problem and Stephens’ precocious blend of offence and defence tumbled out.
“This is so crazy, but oh my goodness,” Stephens said, wiping away tears in her post-match interview. “I think I’ll put a poster of myself now. Last night I was thinking about it,” she said. “And someone asked me, ‘Do you think you can win?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ But I wasn’t too clear about it, and this morning when I got up I was like, ‘Dude, you can do this. Go out and play and do your best.”’
Williams and Stephens met only recently but they have had considerable contact in the past year. They were Fed Cup teammates last year and have spent time together in Los Angeles, where Stephens lives with her mother and younger brother and where Williams has a residence. But they will now be rivals as well as teammates, and this defeat came less than a month after they played for the first time.
Williams won that match in the quarterfinals in Brisbane in straight sets, but Stephens was surprisingly comfortable playing at Williams’ torrid baseline pace, drawing big praise from Williams afterward.
The daughter of former NFL running back John Stephens, who is now deceased, Sloane is one of the fastest players in women’s tennis but she has had physical problems of her own coming to the Australian Open, having to rest for eight weeks and skip the end of the 2012 season because of a torn abdominal muscle.
She might have lost to Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals after her stunning win over Williams but her fan base has really grown after her upset of Williams, going by the number of her followers on Twitter. “It was 17,000 and now I have 35,000,” she said with a grin.
Although she has had other tennis role models besides Williams, including Kim Clijsters, Stephens once had a poster of Williams on her wall. But she said she did not begin playing the game because of Serena or Venus.
“I got into it because it was an after-school activity and it was fun,” she said.
Stephens also said, in an interview last year, that the fact that she and the Williamses are African-Americans had not been a major factor in their becoming her role models.
“It doesn’t matter what race you are,” Stephens said. “If you are an amazing athlete and an amazing person and you can do unbelievable things through your sport, anyone will look up to you. I mean I love Kim Clijsters. I love so many different players. It doesn’t matter that they are American or African-American.”
Stephens has been hearing about her potential for years. Donald Dell, one of the most experienced agents and talent spotters in tennis, was hustling to get to her matches when she was still playing in junior tournaments. And he was not alone.
Ranked 25th at the moment, Stephens is now guaranteed to break into the top 20 in the rankings, which makes her the statistical leader of a promising generation of US women that includes Christina McHale, Jamie Hampton, Melanie Oudin and the 17-year-old Madison Keys.
Oudin, 21, was the first to make an impact, reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon and the quarterfinals of the US Open in 2009. But she has since struggled for consistent results against more powerful opponents.
Though Stephens, at 5-foot-7, is also shorter than many of her current and future rivals, power is not an issue. She has a big forehand, a solid two-handed backhand and a convincing serve, driven by her powerful legs. She also has serious speed.
“She’s probably one of the quickest players out here,” said David Nainkin, who coaches Stephens and the leading US men’s player, Sam Querrey, through the US Tennis Association’s player development programme in Carson, California.
The shared coaching arrangement began last summer after Stephens parted with her longtime USTA coach, Roger Smith. She and Querrey have a close relationship and a friendly rivalry that seems to drive Stephens as much as any rivalry on the WTA tour.
“I asked her in the offseason what her goals were – asked her seriously,” Nainkin said. “And she said, ‘I want to be ranked higher than Sam.”’
She is off to a good start. With Querrey ranked 22nd, she will be ahead of him come Monday. “Well, there’s really no bet; I think it’s just for pride,” Stephens said. “But obviously egos are big. This is tennis.”