How badly was Serena Williams injured? Only she knows, but the main fact that matters is that 19-year-old Sloane Stephens announced herself on the world stage in a Wednesday quarterfinal of the Australian Open by beating Williams, the hot favorite, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.
There were so many reasons for Stephens to choke. The South Florida native who lives with her mom in Los Angeles, was playing the woman in the poster on her bedroom wall; she was trying for her first Grand Slam semifinal; and she was playing an injured opponent which brings its own kind of pressure.
But Stephens didn’t blink and didn’t falter after a momentary lapse when she dropped serve at 3-3 in the final set. Quickly re-asserting herself, she came back at Serena, using her exceptional foot speed to work her way out of defensive positions to end up on the offensive at the net.
“She impressed me from the first moment I saw her,” said the highly experienced women’s coach Sven Groeneveld, who has never worked with Stephens. “Very few women can volley like that and most who can only play doubles. She has tennis in her DNA.”
Williams injured her back when she raced forward to retrieve a Stephens drop shot toward the end of the second set. At the next changeover, Williams disappeared into the locker room for treatment and seemed to be moving relatively freely as the match continued.
Williams had a different explanation in the post-match news conference.
“It’s fine. You know, just nothing,” Williams said. “I think everyone at this stage in the locker room has something wrong with them … There’s no excuse there. I had a tough two weeks between the ankle, which is like this big (holding her hands far apart) every day, and my back which started hurting. A lot of stuff.”
Williams, who had her match streak of 20 consecutive wins snapped, recounted how the injury occurred.
“A few days ago, the back got really tight and then I went for this drop shot and it just locked up on me,” Williams said. “I couldn’t really rotate after that. It was a little painful. But it’s OK.
“It was what it was.”
Once Stephens recovered from losing her own serve in a temporary fit of nerves when she served for the second set – which she rectified by breaking again immediately – it seemed that the teenager was able to handle most of what Serena threw at her.
This included plenty of full-blooded drives from the former champion; plenty of signs that Serena was still competitive and had no intention of giving it away. But Stephens had the answers. She was making Serena play more balls than anyone in recent months and was, eventually, able to inflict this amazing defeat on a player who had lost just one match since a first-round loss at Roland Garros last May.
Flashing that grin which is going to become the poster smile of women’s tennis, Sloane arrived in her post-match news conference to say that she gave herself a bit of a talking to in the morning.
“Yes, I thought I could win but I wasn’t too clear about it and then I said, ‘Come on, dude, you can do this,’” Stephens said. “But I wasn’t really convinced until I lost my opening serve in the second set to go 2-0 down.
“Then I just said, ‘Get all the balls in play, get into the net.’ Then I started to feel more comfortable.”
It was a remarkable performance by any standards and heralded the birth of a new star.