NEW YORK—A player over 30, even a spectacularly successful one, inevitably faces a series of unnerving challenges unknown to the young, gifted, and frisky. Serena Williams met one of them on Arthur Ashe Stadium today, in the shape of the youngster designated by pundits as her successor as the leading lady of U.S. tennis.
That was Sloane Stephens, the No. 15 seed at the U.S. Open. Williams herself has given her blessing to this projected exercise in torch-passing, which put her in a rather awkward position. Just exactly when is Williams supposed to go belly up and yield to the inevitable future?
“Not today,” Williams seemed to say, with chill, consuming authority, as she delivered a 6-4, 6-1 beating on her understudy. That the match seemed—and certainly felt—a lot closer than that score will indicate only made Williams’ superiority that much convincing.
“I thought I played good (sic). There were times I played some really good tennis,” Stephens said afterward. “The second set got away from me a little bit. I thought she did a lot of things really well. She’s number one in the world for a reason.”
That reason can be summed up fairly neatly in three words: Too much everything. Too much offense—46 percent of Serena’s serves were unreturned, and she struck 22 stone-cold winners. Too much defense—Williams put 84 percent of her returns in play, and she kept Stephens from winning more than 41 percent of the baseline exchanges. Too much pressure—Williams had 10 break points, at least one in all but two of the games Stephens served. Too much Serena.
“I definitely think it was a high-quality match,” Serena said in her presser. “I don’t think either of us had an overwhelming number of unforced errors. It definitely had the feeling more of a quarterfinal or semifinal match, but at the end of the day it was a fourth-round match.”
The match began under a soiled sky on a humid afternoon, with an air of tension and pending drama hanging over Arthur Ashe Stadium like a bank of pungent fog. A cynic might put the atmosphere down to hype, but the air would have gone out of that balloon mighty fast if there was no real substance to back it up. It was up to Stephens to provide that credibility, and she was up to the task.
Few players deliver power as easily and inconspicuously as Stephens, who was remarkably poised and competent from the get-go. Some women, matched with Williams, become a bundle of flying arms and legs and emotions spilling over like the head on a badly poured glass of beer. Not Stephens. One of her outstanding qualities is her poise. She appears calm almost to the point of lethargy, and undemonstrative almost to the point of appearing indifferent.
“That’s just how I kind of learn to process things,” she explained. “When I’m on the court I don’t want to get too up or too down, I want to stay cool. Sometimes it’s really good, sometimes it’s not so good, because you need that little extra bump.”
Stephens handled the occasion, as well as Williams’ game, perfectly well without that extra bump. The first set was very close, although Stephens was under more pressure, more often, to hold serve. She handled two set points in the critical 10th game, while serving to stay in the set, admirably. Williams botched the first of those, but Stephens hit a gorgeous cross-court forehand winner to wipe away the second. Stephens had an excellent chance to hold after she won the deuce point, but over-hit a forehand approach shot after belting one of her best serves of the match. It was her last chance to hold. Two Stephens errors later, Williams had the set.
Stephens made a good push to start the second set, with a break point that she failed to convert in the first game. But she was broken after a pair of holds, and that initiated the deluge. Fittingly, given the way this match played out, Williams claimed her decisive break with a wonderful show of defense. On break point, the women engaged in a long, high-quality rally, highlighted by two spectacular retrieves by Williams. The point ended when Stephens smacked a forehand into the net tape, and her resistance finally crumbled.
“When you get broken to go down 1-3, I think they’re (the opponent) going to be pretty relaxed,” Stephens said. “I think Serena had some bomb serves then, and I lost serve (again). That kind of threw me off. Having Serena serve at 3-1 up in the second is not ideal.”
She makes a good point. But it’s also not ideal to feel obliged to praise a rival and identify her as your successor, only to have to work up the kind of good old-fashioned hate that makes winning easier. But this is an area in which Williams is beginning to excel, even as the fleet of American hopefuls led by Stephens is massing at the gates to the fortress.
“Yeah, it’s definitely difficult,” Williams said of the balancing act required to embrace these youngsters while also keeping them at arm’s length. “It’s especially (tough) playing people you like, that you always want to see do well. But you have to go out there and put that to the side and realize, ‘I want to do well myself,’ and then take every point as it comes.
Let’s not forget, though, that Williams is expert at separating her feelings from the demands of the job. She’s becoming accustomed to challenges that a less experienced and game competitor might find too daunting. She was born into the professional world with a mandate to out-do her older sister—and best friend—Venus. She had to elbow her way to the top and, as she entered her 30s, has had to deal with various manifestations of mortality, from illness and injury to the specter of much younger, aggressive players whose own mission as described by the game is to bring her down.
In fact, one of them, No. 2 seed Victoria Azarenka, is penciled in to meet her in the final of this tournament, a match that would reprise last year’s final. Williams has also professed her warm and friendly feelings for Azarenka, but judging from what we saw today, that just might be a kiss of death.
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