MELBOURNE—Tennis classics come in all shapes and sizes. On Sunday Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka, two pros from different countries and of similar ages, put each other through a supreme test of skill and stamina; their round-of-16 matchup was a five-hour exhibition of the sport at its finest. Compared to that, Sloane Stephens’ 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 quarterfinal win over Serena Williams today was a very different type of epic. It wasn’t about excellence, and it won’t be remembered for its high quality of play. This match between fellow African-American women a decade apart in age was a psychological drama as only tennis can stage them.
It had been billed in the press as mentor vs. protégé. First we heard that Serena was Sloane’s idol growing up. Then we heard about the poster Stephens had of her on her wall, and the way that Serena had helped her, only to show her the back of her hand in their first match, two weeks ago in Brisbane. It took Chris Clarey of the New York Times to remind us today that Sloane hadn’t originally been inspired to pick up a racquet because of Serena, after all. A little later, Matt Cronin of TENNIS.com reported that the two had met for the first time only a year ago, for four minutes, and that Stephens didn’t think Serena had any idea who she was.
“I always love watching her play,” said Stephens, who couldn’t remember the first time she had seen Serena on TV, “but I never tried to copycat or anything like that.”
“Honestly, I’ve never really given her advice,” Serena said.
On camera, their handshake at the end looked like a touching moment of respect; in the future it might even be described as a passing of the American tennis torch. But according to Stephens it wasn’t anything special. Asked what she said to Serena, Sloane shrugged and said, “Good match, well played. I say the same thing every time. She just said good match. I don’t even remember, honestly.”
Still, there really was a good story behind this match, and it involved more than these two women. A lot of tennis in recent years has been about young players not measuring up to the game’s stars. We saw it again this week when 31-year-old Roger Federer straight-setted Bernard Tomic and Milos Raonic, each a decade or so younger than him, in successive rounds. On both the men’s and women’s sides, we’ve wondered for a long time when the next generation would finally show up. While Serena was hurt today—she aggravated a back injury in the second set—19-year-old Sloane Stephens showed up, and measured up. We haven’t felt the shock of the new for a long time. It was nice to be reminded of what kind of buzz it can create.
“Look dude, like, you can do this. Like, go out and play and do your best.”
That’s what Stephens, a California teen through and through, said she told herself this morning before the match. For a set and two games, though, it looked like she wasn’t going to do her best after all. She matched Serena in power, and held serve easily to 3-3. But soon she was backing up and letting her elder do the dictating. That’s how it went until Serena was up 6-3, 2-0.
To that point, Stephens had looked tentative and unsure of herself in Rod Laver Arena. After shanking a ball, she stared toward her players’ box in confusion. But something clicked at 0-2 in the second; she appeared to set the doubts aside. Stephens held and then put together her best attacking tennis of the match to break for 2-2. Now she was the one playing closer to the baseline, and Serena was doing the running.
“I went down 2-0,” Stephens said, “and I was like, Hmmm, this is not the way you want it to happen....From then on, I got aggressive, started coming to the net more, and just got a lot more comfortable.”
It was all downhill from there for Serena. What had appeared to be another routine win was soon spinning out of her control. When Stephens began to play better in the second set, Serena became tentative. Things went from bad to much worse when she was serving at 3-4. Serena ran forward for a drop shot and let out a scream as she swung. “I totally locked up after that,” she said of her back.
As Serena’s body was locking up, though, so was Stephens’ mind. Faced with an injured opponent and a chance to beat a 15-time Grand Slam champ, she couldn’t put the ball in the court. Again, though, Sloane rescued herself just in time. Down break point at 5-5, she cracked an inside-out forehand winner, held, and won the next game for the set.
That theme, of Stephens appearing to falter before facing up to the moment, would play out in the third set as well. The two went back and forth, trading winners and errors and service breaks, until Stephens served at 4-4. Serena, still moving gingerly, threw caution to the wind and connected on two big winners to reach break point. It looked like the story had finally ended, in the way that we thought it would. But Stephens took the punch and threw one right back, with a forehand winner of her own.
It was Serena, it would turn out, who was out of answers. She was the one who collapsed at the end, losing her serve and the match with four listless errors in the final game.
“I don’t think my level was high,” Serena said later. This was her first loss since last August, and first at a major since the French Open. “I mean, you can tell. You each can say this is definitely not my best match in months.”
As for her assessment of Stephens, Serena thought she had played well, and she didn’t excuse the defeat by citing her injury. But there was a backhanded quality to the compliments she had for the teenager’s game. “She’s a good player,” Serena said. “She runs fast and she gets a lot of balls back. That’s always a plus to have in your career.” Serena's not quite ready to hand over the crown just yet. She's still a competitor, not a mentor.
One part of me wants to say that, whatever Serena’s opinion is, the question now isn’t “if” Sloane Stephens is going to win a major, but “when.” And I do think she has major-title potential. But I also don’t think she’s quite there yet. If Serena doesn’t injure herself, Sloane probably loses this match in straight sets.
That said, what counts today is what I wrote at the top: Sloane saw that the match was there for the taking, and she took it. Doing that against Serena Williams is plenty for right now.