Tennis

Does tennis have a new rivalry?

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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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I’m starting to dream of a Serena-Sloane Wimbledon final. Can you imagine? The new rivalry of tennis?

After they both went along with, and then later debunked, the whole feelgood story about their mentor-student relationship?

After Sloane Stephens beat Serena Williams at the Australian Open? After Serena took a shot at Sloane, theoretically, on Twitter? After Sloane called Serena a phony? This could be great. It could revive women’s tennis and spark it in the US.

Well, Serena Williams will get there next Saturday, to the Wimbledon final. She beat tiny, ancient Kimiko Date-Krumm 6-2, 6-0 to get to the final 16. Sloane Stephens won, too. And all the top seeds on her side of the draw, including Maria Sharapova, are gone and out of her way.

So someone asked Stephens about playing Serena in the final.

“If we get there, we get there,’’ Stephens said. “If we don’t, there will be more. That’s a long ways off.’’

Yes, it’s a long way. Long, long way. Looooong way. The convergence of Serena and Sloane, whether now or in the future, is the one compelling scenario for women’s tennis, and the media are already starting to push it.

The only thing is, Stephens has a lot of growing to do. She needs time and space.

Serena is just so dominant that we are inventing scenarios, mostly of younger threats. The other day, it was about Andy Murray possibly playing her (He would win 6-0, 6-0.) Let’s be honest: Venus Williams is too old to contend with Serena, and Sharapova doesn’t appear to be good enough.

Sloane is next.

Give her room. People are too high on her, and she has been pumped up too much. It started at the Australian Open, where Stephens beat Williams. Your friendly tennis media did not make it clear that Williams was hurt so bad that she could barely move.

Stephens became a star, even though she isn’t ready, and almost lost anyway.

She has moved up to No. 17 in the world, which suggests she has arrived. But women’s tennis has no depth. Everyone from, say No. 10 to No. 75 is basically the same.

Stephens is coming along fine. She’s 20. But honestly, she wasn’t even the best American prospect Saturday at Wimbledon.

Madison Keys, 18, played straight–up against the No. 4 player in the world, Aga Radwanska, losing 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. She is big. She CRUSHES her serve and her forehand. She plays smart. But her footwork isn’t great yet. And she has so little nerve on her second serve that she just dinks it in.

I asked whether she sees herself getting aggressive on that serve: “I think it’s getting comfortable with it,’’ she said. “That’s definitely a goal of mine. I think you kind of have to.’’

This is part of the process, if she’s given room.

Stephens, on the other hand, was not great in beating qualifier Petra Cetkovska 7-6, 0-6, 6-4. The first two sets were played Friday night, and they showed a telling problem.

When it started getting dark Friday, Stephens thought they should have stopped playing. The chair umpire told her they had 45 more minutes of light.

“I was like, `Oh, that’s not good,’ ’’ Stephens said.

Stephens was right. It was too dark. But that doesn’t explain why she fell apart, as if her opponent was playing in daylight. Stephens can pound serves and forehands, too, but rarely does. She also is smart and does not have Keys’ footwork issues. The question is her fight, and her come-and-go focus. Who wants to get off the court when she’s winning?

We’ll have to see if she can develop those things. It would almost be better for her if she were ranked No. 50, and people wouldn’t be expecting greatness already.

She can beat Monica Puig, a young prospect from Puerto Rico, to get to the quarters. The only players ranked ahead of her between her and the finals are Marion Bartoli, who is inconsistent, and Petra Kvitova, who is highly talented but a head case.

Still, I can’t see Stephens getting that far. If Americans want her to develop, they need to celebrate her progress, and stop pretending as if she has arrived already.

That said, even I can see the how great Serena-Sloane can be. At first, the story pushed was that Stephens had grown up idolizing Williams, who then politely began mentoring her. There’s a word for that story:

Fiction.

I suspect the only reason people said Stephens idolized Williams is because they’re both black. There was an assumption that Stephens surely most have idolized Williams. The weird thing is how both players went along with it, probably figuring it would create a stir if they didn’t.

As for mentoring, well, that never happened, either, as Serena admitted in a Rolling Stone article last week.

After Stephens beat Williams in Australia, the Serena-Sloane thing started to ramp up. But Stephens had made some crack to the media about Williams screaming “Come on’’ during matches.

Williams — and I’m only guessing here — didn’t like that, after she had publicly said nice things about Stephens. Williams tweeted, “I made you.’’ Stephens would say that was a crack about her.

She said, “If you mentor someone, that means you speak to them, that means you help them, that means you know about their life, that means you care about them. Are any of those things true at this moment? No.’’

She would tell ESPN the Magazine that Williams hadn’t “spoken to me, not said hi, not looked my way, not been in the same room with me since I played her in Australia ... She went from saying all these nice thing about me to unfollowing me on Twitter.’’

This is not a battle Stephens is ready to fight, much less win. Maybe in the future, but not now. That doesn’t mean I can’t dream.

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