Serena Williams took Sloane Stephens’ best, and made it disappear

Serena Williams took Sloane Stephens’ best, and made it disappear

The 23-time Grand Slam champion turned her US Open third-round match 180 degrees, in a matter of minutes.

“I said, ‘Just get a game, Serena, just get a game,’” Serena Williams said after her 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 win over Sloane Stephens on Saturday. “And the next thing I know I won the second set, so I said, ‘OK, great.’”

That’s kind of how it felt from the outside, too, didn’t it? One minute Stephens was on fire and cruising; the next minute Williams was completely in command and on her way to winning 10 of the last 12 games. It was a titanic, 180-degree momentum shift, executed in a span of a few minutes. But even for Serena, it was difficult to feel that shift without fans to heighten the drama with their oohs and aahs, roars and gasps. Without that emotion in the arena, the score just kind of…went in the other direction.

Most of the emotion inside Arthur Ashe Stadium would have been in Serena’s favor, of course. But she said she didn’t need it, as she had all the motivation she needed inside. It wasn’t surprising that Williams turned a match against Stephens around; coming in, Serena was 5-1 against her, and twice before she had beaten her after losing the first set. What was surprising was how thorough this turnaround was. As well as Stephens played in the first set, that’s exactly how well Serena played in the last two. This match was one-way traffic, in two different directions.

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For the first set and a half, Stephens, to use the only appropriate cliché, was on fire. She made nearly 80 percent of her first serves, and controlled the rallies with nonchalant self-assurance. She would roll a forehand or backhand crosscourt and pull Serena wide, and then fire an easy, safe winner down the line. So many shots went past Serena, it seemed logical to wonder: Has she lost a step? Sloane finished the first set with 11 winners and just five unforced errors, while Serena made just 50 percent of her first serves.

“In that first set, she didn’t make any errors,” Serena said. “She was playing so cleanly.”

Still, the question on most people’s minds as the second set started wasn’t, “Will Serena be able to turn it around?” It was, “When will the turnaround begin?” It happened with Serena serving at 2-2, down break point. Sloane was coming off a love hold, and she had yet to show any cracks in her casually confident facade. When Serena sent her first serve down the T at break point, Sloane was there in plenty of time. But instead of giving the ball a rip with her forehand as she had been, she sliced it back. The ball sailed long, Serena eventually held, and then broke serve for the first time in the next game.

Sloane’s momentum went poof, and she won just two more games. It only took one cautious decision by Sloane, on that slice return of serve, for Serena to seize the upper hand.

From there, Serena’s first-serve percentage rose; she made 60 percent for the match and finished with 12 aces. She changed her return position on Stephens’ second serves, stepping forward to meet them earlier. Instead of Stephens controlling from the middle of the court and running Serena side to side, Serena did the controlling, and Sloane did the running. Once the dynamic shifted and Serena stopped making errors, Stephens didn’t have any answers or back-up plans. She’s an excellent defender, but when Serena plays well, a good offense beats a good defense every time.

“It was intense,” Williams said, between deep breaths, as she did her post-match interview with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi. “We always have some really incredible matches. It brings out the best in my fitness when I play Sloane.”

Deep breaths or no deep breaths, this match was a reminder that, even a few weeks short of 39, Serena hasn’t lost a step after all. She still retains her basic superiority, in skill and confidence, over most other high-level players. She took Sloane’s best, and made it disappear. Now she’ll try to do the same against another high-level player, and one who beat her last week at the Western & Southern Open, Maria Sakkari.

Without fans roaring for her, it might have been a little harder to appreciate what Serena can still do to a hot-hitting opponent. All we can do is tip our caps at home.