'It’s either go big or go home'
Serena and Sloane. Don’t be too surprised if it evolves into a television series. The pair seem to be made for each other — the mega star Grand Slam champion and the budding starlet who seems to have a game and a wisdom beyond her years.
Both Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens won their first-round matches at the US Open as the heat of the day faded into evening, and both had a lot to say about each other. Serena finished the program with a 6-1, 6-1 victory over another American Coco Vandeweghe as the wind gusted across Arthur Ashe Stadium. A little earlier over on Louis Armstrong, Stephens had stepped up a notch in her burgeoning career by defeating Francesca Schiavone, the former French Open champion, 6-3, 6-4.
Williams and Stephens met only a few months ago because Williams was assigned by the WTA as Stephens mentor — a policy whereby established stars help young players acclimatize to the tour. It works to varying degrees depending on the individuals involved, but this seems like a match made in heaven.
“We’re really good friends,” Stephens said. “We really enjoy each other. We’re always laughing and giggling. I feel like I knew her in a past life. It’s so strange.”
Serena could not have been more complimentary about the younger player. “She’s really awesome,” she said. “I think she’s an amazing player. She’s playing so smooth. I hope I can teach her some things. I think we can feed off each other. Maybe she can teach me things, maybe to be calm on court.”
It is clear that Serena is more than willing to listen as well as teach. “Off court she’s a great person,” Serena said of the 19-year-old who lives in Los Angeles with her mother. “She’s always laughing, saying hello, encouraging me not to remain single. She thinks I’m going to find someone one day. I tell her no, I’m not and complain about it. But you never know.”
If Serena already has leanings toward an acting career, it is also clear that Sloane would be a natural in front of the camera. She embraces the limelight and laps up the atmosphere of a big stage. Already her picture is plastered all over Manhattan on American Express billboards. “I love that,” she beamed. “When I see myself, I freak out!”
Stephens had lost to Schiavone when they met earlier in the year but that was on clay in Strasbourg, and she is a better player now. On Tuesday, Stephens dominated her vastly more experienced opponent from start to finish and refused to get upset when a call that might have given her match point was called out. When she did reach match point for the second time, she hit a glorious forehand right up the line for a clean winner.
“I had played well in the previous weeks but hadn’t won,” she said. “So this time I thought, 'It’s either go big or go home.'”
She seems to have derived extra confidence from her new coach David Nainkin, who is still working with Sam Querrey and, if she can build on this, Stephens could take some significant strides before the end of the year.
Oracene Williams spent much of the afternoon comfortably ensconced on a large sofa in the players’ lounge, occasionally flicking through a picture book of Roland Garros with some friends, happy to let her daughters do the work.
Before Serena’s win, Venus had been out on Arthur Ashe, scoring an encouraging 6-3, 6-1 victory over Bethanie Matek-Sands.
Twelve months ago Venus was unable to play as she grappled with the realization that she was suffering from Sjoegrens’ Disease. But she has learned to handle it. “Yeah, I’m taking a few medicines. I’m definitely better than last fall. For me it’s about living with no regrets. If I have any small chance to hit the ball, I’m going to go for it. There’s a big difference between watching on TV and being in the tournament. But this summer I just came to terms with it. I’ve accepted now that I do have an autoimmune disease. I think acceptance is good.”
It is good, too, that we are talking positively about a bunch of black American players, moving forward and making their mark on the game. Especially on this day because it was 62 years ago on Aug. 28, 1950, at Forest Hills, that Althea Gibson, a future champion, became the first black player to compete in the US Championships. Knowing Althea as I did, I think she would have thought young Sloane pretty awesome, too.