There is a tendency to compare Sloane Stephens to Serena Williams, and it’s understandable: Both African-Americans have enjoyed success in the pros at a young age and can overpower opponents with blistering shots. The two are close off the court as well, with Serena serving as a mentor to her Fed Cup teammate.
But the comparison falls short in one respect: The way the two express themselves on court. There’s no guesswork needed to figure out how Serena’s feeling—just watch her facial reactions, listen to her points, and take note of how hard she’s hitting her returns. Stephens, on the other hand, exhibits a quiet confidence, all the way down to the way she strikes her shots, which have more spin than splat. It served her very well today in Brisbane, even in defeat. For although Serena prevailed, 6-4, 6-3, Stephens’ demeanor and determination made this quarterfinal into a memorable, high-quality contest that often brought out the best in both women.
Stephens did a little tightrope-walking early on, despite matching Serena’s service holds through eight games. The 19-year-old got away with some soft second serves—once paying homage to Agnieszka Radwanska with a “squat shot” winner—and managed to snag points she was seemingly out of. But although some of this could be chalked up to Serena errors, Stephens’ poise must be commended. She can reset rallies with looping, accurate groundstrokes, then use those shots to create advantageous angles. Many of Serena’s errors came when she was on the run, but it was Stephens who forced that movement. That put the elder countrywoman into some pressure-filled situations, including facing a break point at 3-3. Serena wiped it away with an ace.
Like her attitude, Serena’s serve can sometimes come across as cavalier, but no matter what you think about it, it’s the biggest difference between herself and her opponents, and Stephens was no exception. The most powerful shot in the WTA made life difficult for Stephens as she returned—though Serena rarely got through service games unscathed—and put added importance on the teenager’s own service games. Up 40-15 while serving to stay in the first set at 5-4, Stephens made the cardinal sin of not finishing off Serena when she could. Four points later, the set was over. Serena made it so with smart second-serve returns, eschewing power for placement.
Power was never far from reach, though, for both women, and Stephens’ continuous improvement in the first set suggested that she wouldn’t fade away. And had she converted a break point in the opening game of the second set—earned with a clean forehand winner up the line—Stephens might still be out on the court as I type this. But as we’ve seen so many times, both today and in matches past, Serena’s serve came to the rescue, and it was 1-0 with a hold. The pattern was established once again.
Serena was hardly automatic in this match, but she methodically built up her score with more powerful shots, while Stephens countered with an astute performance that belies her young age. Her quiet confidence was evident in the second set, perhaps her best of the two despite winning one less game. You saw it on Stephens' face, how she carried herself, and even when she challenged a fault call on her first serve—naturally, it was reversed.
But the pattern from the first set did not disappear, and after a light first serve in the eighth game, Serena earned a break point, which she won at net for a 5-3 lead. A big “Come on!” cry followed the winner, just as it did at one instance in the first set, something Stephens called “disrespectful” during a chat with her coach. It was another illustration of the difference between the two, but in Serena’s mind, Stephens and her will have another similarity soon enough: After Williams held serve for the win, the former No. 1 declared that Stephens “can be the best in the world one day.” That’s a pretty confident statement.