That was the message that Serena Williams delivered on Sunday afternoon at the U.S. Open in New York City, after crushing American upstart Sloane Stephens 6-4, 6-1 in their fourth round match. Stephens, as you may have heard a few thousand times already this year, is the next great hope for American tennis, which has struggled to produce a breakout star in a good decade or so. It’s one thing for Stephens, 20, to enthrall American tennis fans, and to endear herself to the American sporting public by knocking off a gimpy Serena in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, like she did in January. After that win, Stephens became a Twitter celebrity, and even went on Ellen. It’s quite another, however, to beat Serena on her turf, at Arthur Ashe Stadium, where she was won four U.S. Open titles.
Back in February, I went out to Los Angeles to interview Stephens, and attended one of her practice sessions at the USTA Training Center. That day, she worked on obliterating soft second serves, returning them for winners. Her coaches said she was leaving too many easy points on the court.
She should repeat that session. To start things off on Sunday, Williams gave Stephens an 81 miles per hour gimmie in the first game, then an 84 miles per hour gift a few games later. Stephens hit the first one long, and the second one into the net. In Williams’ first three service games, she lost a single point to Stephens, on a double-fault.
Stephens did show off her considerable skills in the first set, fighting off two set points. The second save was a beautiful, ballsy scorcher down the right baseline that got the New York crowd on her side. But she couldn’t finish off that game, and went down quietly in the second set. Her standout moment in the second was an incredible mishit that sent the ball flying over the net, the baseline, the wall and into the stands. It was an impressive show of strength, I guess.
Stephens shouldn’t be too sad: no one is stopping Serena at this years’ U.S. Open anyway. Serena’s second-set results through the first four rounds of this year’s open: 6-1, 6-0, 6-1, 6-1. (Next up in the quarterfinals: 18th-seeded Carla Suarez Navarro, who beat eighth-seeded Angelique Kerber on Sunday). Stephens, seeded 15th at this year’s U.S. Open, says she’s shooting to crack the Top 10 in the world rankings by year’s end. “If I don’t make that, shame on me,” Stephens says. She says the ‘heir apparent” talk isn’t getting to her. “Right now, I’m carrying the little torch,” says Stephens. “But I’m ok with it. I embrace it, for now.”
Williams and Stephens have had little squabbles this year. Stephens did not appreciate Williams’ grunting and fist-bumping during a match in Brisbane back in January, which Williams won. “That’s insane,” Stephens told me back in February. “Just intimidation. That’s just what happened. That’s what she does. She scares people.” At the press conference after Stephens beat Williams in Australia, Williams referred to Stephens as “my opponent” and called her a “good player” but took no pains to praise her. Stephens calls such tactics mind games. “I would never do that to anyone,” she says. “So I don’t understand how some people do the things they do. That’s life. What can you do? You can’t change that. She is who she is, so you just move on.”
In an interview with ESPN The Magazine, Stephens talked about how the Williams sisters refused to sign an autograph for her at a tournament in Florida, when Stephens was 12. She also said Serena unfollowed her on Twitter, and refused to talk to her after Stephens beat her in Australia.
After the match, Serena took the highest road. “How excited are you for the future of American tennis?” she said during an on-court interview, giving Stephens her due. The crowd roared. A stiffer challenge for Serena, however, would have been more inspiring. Stephens still has plenty to prove. A polite tennis clap is more appropriate.