Stephens tops Robson in match-up of rising talents
Tennis rivals don't normally get messages from their opponent's mother wishing them well in the next round. Particularly after a defeat.
Moments after Sloane Stephens beat fellow teenager Laura Robson 7-5, 6-3 in a highly anticipated third-round match at the Australian Open on Saturday, though, she received a text from her mother.
''She was like, `Great job, good fight.' And she said, `Cathy says great job and good luck in the next round,'' Stephens said of the message her mother relayed from Robson's mother.
Stephens, 19, and Robson, 18, are two of the most promising new talents on the women's tour, and the match between them felt like a glimpse of future Grand Slam encounters - perhaps a bit later than the third round.
They also just happen to be friends - and their mothers are friends, too.
''We're turning into the Fed-Nadal rivalry,'' Stephens, the 29th-seeded American, joked afterward, adding that they probably shouldn't have been scheduled to play in a venue as small as Court 2. ''I don't think we'll play that court ever again.''
There are certainly enough similarities between the players to suggest a rivalry could be in the making.
Both are close in age - Stephens is nine months older than Robson, whose 19th birthday is on Monday.
Both are coming off breakthrough years. Stephens reached the fourth round at the French Open and rose to No. 38 in the rankings by the end of 2012, becoming the only teenager in the top 50. And Robson defeated two former Grand Slam champions - Kim Clijsters and Li Na - to reach the fourth round at the U.S. Open and rise to 53rd in the rankings by the end of the year.
And both are being touted as future stars in their respective countries - Stephens as a future replacement for the Williams sisters at the top of the game and Robson as the next hope for British tennis on the women's side, which hasn't seen a Grand Slam champion since Virginia Wade won Wimbledon in 1977.
Such was the interest in their match that Stephens bumped former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, who won her third-round match around the same time Saturday, out of the schedule for the main interview room at Melbourne Park after both of them came off the court. Two long-established British news organizations also live-blogged the match on their websites for all the Robson fans back in Britain.
The match itself, however, nearly didn't live up the billing. Stephens broke Robson twice to race out to a 4-0 lead in the first set before Robson, troubled by a sore shoulder, called for a medical timeout to have treatment.
Robson picked up her game after the break, however. Cheered on by the highly partisan crowd - Robson was born in Melbourne before moving to Britain - she began hitting shots deep into the corners and forcing errors from Stephens, leveling the score at 4-4.
Robson would be undone by her own errors, though. Stephens broke her at 6-5 to capture the first set and then again in the fourth game of the second set to close out the match.
Robson had 47 unforced errors overall, along with just 11 winners.
''I felt something in my shoulder yesterday, but we still don't know what it is because I haven't had time to see the doctor or anything yet,'' said a subdued Robson, who had upset 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in a three-hour match on Thursday.
''But these things happen, and you just have to play through the pain sometimes. I thought Sloane played really well today.''
Stephens, who next plays Serbia's Bojana Jovanovski for a spot in the quarterfinals, was equally complimentary of Robson afterward - and not just about her tennis.
''She's an awesome girl. She's pretty. I mean, what more do you want?'' she said. ''She's obviously a good player. We're going to have a rivalry, all that good stuff.''
So far, Stephens has the upper hand. She's now 2-0 against Robson after beating her last week in a tournament in Hobart, too.
But Robson believes there will be plenty of chances for revenge.
''We've played each other twice in two weeks, so I can see it happening again at some point,'' she said. ''I'm sure I'll play Sloane a lot in the future.''