Teen spirit: Stephens stuns Serena, makes semis
MELBOURNE, Australia -- It took 137 minutes for someday to arrive for Sloane Stephens.
She'll never be regarded as a kid again, yet in the first moments after her dramatic 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 quarterfinal upending of Australian Open favorite Serena Williams on Wednesday, Stephens looked endearingly young and wide-eyed -- a teenager shredding her learner's permit and taking firm hold of the steering wheel, alone in the car for the first time.
Two months shy of her 20th birthday, Stephens flashed her high-wattage smile, congratulated the 31-year-old Williams and then did what anyone her age would do. She dug out her smartphone to check her texts, but the screen was exploding with new ones so quickly that she gave up.
Stephens' eyes welled up a few moments later as ex-pro and Australian television analyst Rennae Stubbs interviewed her on court, but by the time she arrived to meet the assembled media, she was radiating well-controlled elation and seemed as happy about the fact that she'd doubled her Twitter following to 35,000 as she was about the match result.
"This morning when I got up, I was like, 'Look, dude, like, you can do this. Like, go out and play and do your best,'" Stephens said.
"I think I was convinced that I was able to do it when I lost serve in the first game in the second set and I went down 2-0. And I was like, 'Hmm, this is not the way you want it to happen. But you just fight and just get every ball back, run every ball down, and just get a lot of balls in play, I think you'll be OK.' From then on I got aggressive, started coming to the net more, and just got a lot more comfortable. I just kind of played my game from there, I think."
Stephens found herself on unfamiliar hard court in more ways than she could have possibly expected. She was as ready as she could be to compete in her first Grand Slam quarterfinal against one of the fiercest, most accomplished women in the history of the game, not to mention the fact that the third-seeded Williams hadn't lost a match since late August.
But Stephens, seeded 29th, couldn't have anticipated the disorienting sensation of standing in against a Williams serve that was more marshmallow than missile for a considerable interlude.
Late in the second set, Williams braked hard after racing to the net to chase a short return by Stephens. As she backpedaled and began to turn toward the baseline, slightly bent over, she flinched in discomfort and yelled. Williams, who said she "locked up," took a medical timeout at her first opportunity. The pain was quickly diagnosed as a back spasm that clearly impeded her serve and hampered her going to her backhand after she returned to the court.
A composed and gracious Williams declined to blame the injury for her loss.
"I think everyone at this stage in the locker room has something wrong with them, so it's fine," she said. "There's no excuse there."
Tough two weeks
But she did call this foreshortened fortnight the most snakebit she has ever had at a major as she struggled with a rolled right ankle suffered in her opening match and then a tight lower back that started to bother her a couple of days ago -- perhaps because she was compensating for the ankle. Williams even hit herself in the mouth with her racket during one match, splitting her lip.
"I've had a tough two weeks between the ankle, which is like this big every day," Williams said, indicating the width of a dinner plate, "and my back, which started hurting.
"Oh, my gosh, I'm almost relieved that it's over because there's only so much I felt I could do."
But the 15-time Grand Slam winner did not go gently. After swatting a return long to allow Stephens to go up 2-1 in the third set, Williams smashed her racket with two forceful overheads that had more pace than she could manage on her serve at that juncture.
Meanwhile, Stephens was laboring through the distraction of playing an injured opponent. Her bouts of tentative play gave Williams time to heal.
"She was serving at lower speeds, but her serve, she hits spots," Stephens said. "No matter how slow it's going, it's right on the line. It's still a really good serve even though it's much slower."
Williams, her face creased with anxiety, exhorted herself on nearly every point in the late going and looked to her entourage for support. Her serving speed gradually increased and she never stopped swinging freely on her groundstrokes, but by the last couple of games Stephens had shed her nerves and was moving around the court with confidence.
"She grew up today," Stubbs said.
"For her, it became a matter of 'Do I truly believe I can win this match? Physically, I can. I'm hitting the ball great, I'm serving well, now it's a matter of execution.' And she executed."
The first set had almost a businesslike feel. Stephens didn't lose a point in her first three service games -- not a small accomplishment against Williams. But serving at 3-4, Stephens double-faulted to set up triple break point and gave Williams the only opening she needed.
Azarenka on deck
Next up for Stephens is defending champion and world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, whose coach, Samuel Sumyk, said she hadn't taken it for granted that it would be Williams instead.
"Victoria is not haunted by Serena," Sumyk said of Azarenka, a 7-5, 6-1 winner against Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova. "If [Williams] would have won, we would have started thinking about her, but not before the match is played. Now we can focus on Sloane. Fair enough.
"This isn't going to make Victoria's task any easier. There are no easy opponents anymore."
It's likely that Williams will regard this loss as more of a speed bump than a permanent baton handoff, but there was one light moment during her news conference when she referred to her athletic mortality. When USA Today's Doug Robson asked whether Williams had considered retiring -- meaning from the match -- she misinterpreted the question as a big-picture one.
"Doug, are you kidding me? I'm not retiring," she said, as the room erupted in laughter, then realized her mistake. "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you meant my career. Like, you're crazy.
"I thought about it like for a nanosecond. I mean, it's a quarterfinal of a Grand Slam."
It's clear she thinks she has a few more of those in front of her.