The blue court was a crossroads in this all-American quarterfinal. Pained by back spasms and the stress of her first three-setter since the U.S. Open, Serena Williams was hobbled. Empowered by her rally from a set and a break down, Sloane Stephens was soaring.
Defending brilliantly and attacking the net boldly, the 19-year-old stunned five-time Australian Open champion Serena, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, to advance to her first Grand Slam semifinal in just her seventh major appearance. The 25th-ranked Stephens, who snapped Serena’s 20-match winning streak, is the first American teenager to reach a major semifinal since Serena advanced to the U.S. Open final four in 2001.
Williams took a six-minute injury timeout for back spasms she suffered in the second set while racing forward retrieve a drop shot. The injury took the sting off her explosive serve for the rest of the set, left her grimacing at times between points and though she eventually picked up the pace somewhat in the decider, Williams couldn’t solve the teenager she touted as a future No. 1 after sweeping their lone prior meeting in Brisbane earlier this month.
“I went for the drop shot and it just locked up on me, I couldn’t really move,” Williams said in the post-match press conference.
Showing no sign of nerves at the outset, Stephens stayed with Serena on serve through the first six games. Swinging fast and loose, Stephens landed a cross-court forehand on the line to seal her third straight love hold to level at 3-3.
Then Williams turned it up and Stephens blinked. Serena roared though a love hold, then pounced when Stephens played a skittish patch of points. A wayward forehand, ill-conceived drop shot, and her first double fault all added up to triple break point. Williams broke for 5-3, then unleashed successive kick serves bounding shoulder high to claim the 28-minute first set.
Williams was 48-0 when winning first set at the Australian Open and had never lost to an American younger than her. None of that mattered much to Stephens, who soaked up Williams’ pace, stayed step-for-step in running rallies, whipped her potent forehand into the corners, and showed sharp volleying skills, winning 18 of 20 trips to net.
Down a set and 0-2, Stephens reeled off three straight games to spark a revival. She drilled a forehand to break for 5-3, but failed to convert a set point when serving and was eventually broken. Williams, who by this point was spinning her serve into the box, held at love to level at 5-5, and when she gained game point for a 6-5 lead it looked like she might escape. But Stephens quelled the threat and took the second set when Serena slapped a forehand into net.
Festering frustration erupted in the third game of the decider when Williams punctuated a miscue by smashing her Wilson racquet to the court twice, leaving a mangled mess of a frame that she hurled beneath her court-side seat. But Williams was picking up the pieces of her competitive psyche, saving a break point with a smash for 2-2.
As the tension escalated, both women took turns playing tight and aggressive tennis. Williams unleashed a backhand barrage to break for 4-3, only to hand the break back at 30 when she netted a backhand. Stephens’ poise and her willingness to take the fight to the Wimbledon winner proved pivotal when she saved a break point and twice rushed the net to coax errant passes from Williams in holding for 5-4.
The 15-time Grand Slam champion, already nursing a strained right ankle she suffered in round one and apparently exacerbated in yesterday's two-and-a-half hour doubles loss, quickly fell behind 15-40, and when she netted a backhand it was over. Stephens, whose cell phone was flooded with “145” congratulatory text messages, won't have much time to celebrate. She takes on defending champion Victoria Azarenka in Thursday's semifinal.
"It feels awesome. It’s a new thing, but it’s fun,” Stephens told ESPN’s Pam Shriver. “I came to play. I was thinking to myself, 'Things happen just keep fighting.' I just decided I was going to fight and do whatever I could and it worked out well.”