Focused Serena schools Stephens
NEW YORK -- We may never know how much irritation or even resentment Serena Williams harbored and then channeled into her fourth-round US Open match against Sloane Stephens on Sunday.
But with a focus worthy of a bigger match, and no doubt a measure of competitive respect as well, Williams lifted her game to its zenith just enough against her 20-year-old opponent to both send a message and get the job done in a 6-4, 6-1 victory.
At 1 hour, 27 minutes, the match took longer than Williams' usual routs, but fell short of the standard reserved for the greatest rivalries.
This one, while certainly compelling, still is in its infancy. Unfortunately, Mother Nature will most likely get in the way of seeing it mature fully, though Williams, at 31, is as good as she has ever been these days, a marvel of power and efficiency and competitiveness.
There were times early on Sunday, particularly with two double faults to return a break in the eighth game of the first set, that Williams revealed a sliver of vulnerability.
More telling was her reliance on defense, playing further behind the baseline than usual in a notable measure of respect for the youngster's powerful groundstrokes.
But when the opportunity to close was there, as early as a fourth-game break in the second set, Williams was like the proverbial blood-sniffing shark, breaking again in the sixth game and winning 11 of 12 points during that stretch to swallow up her widely acknowledged heir apparent.
"Obviously, she's No. 1 in the world for a reason," Stephens said. "Obviously, it didn't go how I wanted. The second set got away from me a little bit. All in all, I thought I competed well and played well. That's all you can do, really."
Well, that and, as John McEnroe pointed out on the broadcast, learn to move forward and take advantage of the "geometry" of the court.
The athleticism obviously is there and truly was a delight to watch when both Stephens and Williams fueled long rallies with sheer speed and lunging gets.
Make no mistake about the stakes involved here. Stephens was attempting to beat Williams in a second Grand Slam this year after her quarterfinal victory at the Australian Open in January, trying to satisfy (albeit unreasonable) expectations that the time for her to take a definitive step was now, by winning this match.
Williams was fighting the heir apparent thing, perhaps proving to herself, as every great champion still must do from time to time, that she can beat anyone, anywhere, anytime when necessary.
And this was necessary. But again, you will apparently not hear Williams acknowledge as much in public any time soon.
After the Australian Open and a Williams loss no doubt hastened by a gimpy ankle, after Stephens told ESPN The Magazine in May that Serena was no mentor and no friend, after Stephens' subsequent apology and after Williams' countless compliments showered on Stephens, the awkward was still there.
In the end, Williams played with more intensity. A lesson, McEnroe said, for Stephens. But there are many lessons for Stephens to heed, beginning with this one: Providing bulletin board material is never a good idea, especially when it covers the entire corkboard. Michael Jordan made a career of creating scores to settle, even when they weren't there. Champions never forget.
But Stephens also has to give herself a break. Yes, Williams won her first Grand Slam title at 17 with the 1999 US Open. But 20 is the new 15. And Stephens is wise in feeling satisfied with the quantum leap she has taken this year, just as she is smart setting her next goal at breaking into the top 10.
"I'm playing five tournaments," she said. "I think I have a pretty good shot. If I don't make that, then shame on me. All I can do is give 100 percent. As time goes on, you develop. Everything happens in its own time. I never rush anything in my career. Now I have a goal, and I want to reach that."
Williams was as gracious as always after the match, saying Stephens is already at the next level, calling the quality of tennis "great" despite Stephens' 29 unforced errors and saying the match indeed had a bigger feel.
"You know, it definitely had feelings more of a quarterfinal or a semifinal match," she said. "But at the end of the day, it was a fourth-round match."
And at the end of the day, Williams, as the paragon of champion's dignity she is, will keep Stephens and the rest of us at bay, believing this was really just what she does. Another tennis match and not, as it was suggested, an opportunity for a memo to her young opponent that she was not going to upstage her again.
"You know, when I'm playing, I don't go out there thinking like that," Williams said. "I'm literally going out there to play. I'm not thinking about being a star. I just want to play tennis and I want to do really good at it.
"It's not about the stage for me; it's just about getting that ball in."
She just keeps teaching.