Our reaction to Sloane Stephens beating Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.
Kudos to Deadspin for their great piece appropriately skewering the media narrative of Serena Williams as Sloane Stephens’ “mentor.”
As for the match, Sloane Stephens did a great job taking advantage of playing a compromised Serena. Plenty of players have failed to do that, so make no mistake, beating Serena in any condition is an admirable accomplishment. The most crucial moments came at the end of the second set, where Stephens took the set after failing to serve it out due to some bad nerves. A lesser opponent may have been less resilient after dropping serve. Stephens hung tough, and weathered the storm when Serena started to play better in the deciding set. It was a momentous win for her, and making a Slam semi at the age of 19 is a fantastic result.
While I’m impressed with Stephens’ big win, I’m still not crazy about any talk of “changing of the guard.” Without Stephens having won a WTA title yet, I’m not ready to automatically accept that she’s the next Serena. She’s doing great. She needs to keep it up, and focus on continual improvement.
The phrase “changing of the guard” implies that Serena’s time is done. It’s not. She lost a match while injured. She’s not done with tennis. She could still win two or three more Slams this year.
Let’s ease up on the hype a little bit, and just sit back and see what Stephens can do in her semifinal match against Victoria Azarenka.
This was the best post-match reaction:
It could have been Laura Robson
— Neil Harman (@NeilHarmanTimes) January 23, 2013
This was a surreal match, but purely from a personal perspective. Right as the match started, I got a weird hunch, and tweeted this:
I smell upset.
— Juan José (@juanjo_sports) January 23, 2013
Yes, I’m fully aware that Serena had been limping through her doubles loss yesterday, and that Stephens played her tough in Brisbane. But I’ll readily admit that the tweet was not the result of any kind of analysis: all I had when I typed it was a random feeling — a hunch.
I was paying attention to the first six games of the match, but then completely zoned out for the latter half of the first set. Even though I was watching an ESPN3 stream, I was honestly surprised when I saw that Serena had taken the first set 6-3. It was as if the stream had disappeared for a bit and had come back on just to tell me that the set was over. Also, I could swear Sloane Stephens hadn’t lost a single point on her serve during the first three games of the match. I asked Twitter, and I was happy not to have been wrong:
@juanjo_sports You are right. … and then Sloane was broken at 30-40. (worth noting she saved 2 break points in that game)
— Nicole Eclectic (@Nic_Leigh) January 23, 2013
In related news to zoning out completely during a match I’m trying to pay attention to, I got really, really sleepy. It’s probably no surprise to anybody that I haven’t been sleeping all that much during the past few days, and I can’t really function properly without a decent amount of sleep. So right as Sloane Stephens got the break back in the second set, I fell asleep. Pretty bad timing, no?
I was woken up by my wife, who said that Stephens and Serena were in a third. I was beyond groggy at this point, so I stumbled to the couch to watch with her. What I saw were brief glimpses of Sloane Stephens doing more than hold her own during points. I saw “glimpses,” because I was really struggling to keep my eyes open. When Serena went up a break in the third, I gave up the fight and closed my eyes. The upset seemed out of the cards at that moment. I could still listen to the commentary of the match, the thwacks that came from both women’s racquets, and frankly, I was ready to hear, “Game, set and match, Williams.” But instead, I heard that Stephens broke back, and then I finally sat up and opened my stubborn eyes.
What I did see then is what most saw throughout the match: Stephens was having very little problems hanging with Serena in some brutal baseline exchanges, and was winning her fair share of them. I also saw that Serena was struggling physically — I was then told that she had had a trainer visit (a rarity for either Williams sister) for some back spasms. Still, like any proud champion of her ilk, Serena was fighting, and the match was quite a battle — and it was clear that Stephens wasn’t going away. The teenager’s poise seemed unwavering. When Stephens survived a tough service game at 4-all, I had a feeling that the seemingly impossible was about to happen: the 19-year-old had that look of determination in her eyes that led one to believe that she was more than ready to take this huge opportunity that lay before her. And soon enough, she did.
After the match, I jokingly mentioned how I had taken a few minutes of our latest podcast to talk glowingly about the WTA prospects, who I deemed my winners of the first week of the Slam, yet forgot to mention 19-year-old Sloane Stephens. I don’t think that should be taken as an insult to Stephens at all — I see it more as a compliment of sorts. In my mind, she was already passed the “prospect” stage. Tonight was simply the most emphatic confirmation you can get that Sloane Stephens is indeed more present than she is future, which is where you want to be, really.
Wow. That was … I don’t even know what to say. There was so much going into this match: the irresponsible media narratives about how the two had a huge conflict in Brisbane, how Serena was Sloane’s mentor, and how Sloane had “nothing to lose.” There was the fact that everyone (including yours truly) was penciling Serena into the semifinals. There was the nobody-will-say-it-out-loud race factor that Deadspin appropriately addressed. And then there was the fact that these were two Americans from different generations who are not siblings squaring off in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam.
The last part was really the only part that I found relevant going into this match. This was a real chance to see how the generations would line up and whether Sloane was going to relish the spotlight or be scared off by it. She is personable and outgoing and can talk the talk, but sounding like you’re ready is a lot different from actually being ready.
But it turns out she was ready. Now, do I think she could have taken out a 100% healthy Serena Williams? No, at least not right now. But very few players could. Sports is about making the most of what you’re given, and that’s what Sloane did. She played within herself, didn’t let the moment get the best of her, and took advantage of an opening. That’s all you can ask of a player, and it’s a lot more than players a lot more experienced than she is are able to do in a quarterfinal against Serena Williams.
I was on another writing assignment during the first two sets and was relegated to just watching tweets, so I’ll have to go back and watch the match again before giving any thorough analysis. But I will say that it’s exciting to see a player come into their own in front of our very eyes. I don’t want to overthink the dawning of Sloane Stephens. I don’t want to hyperbolize it or put pressure on it or try and fit it into a convenient pre-built box. I want to sit back and enjoy watching whatever and whoever Sloane Stephens becomes. Because I think it’s going to be a great ride.
Oh, and Serena will be back. Don’t you worry.