It wasn't that many months ago that Sloane Stephens would crumble during every big moment in a match, and--as a result--she would lose matches she "should" have won. I wondered if and when Stephens would mature enough to close matches, and now I have my answer. The young American has shown, from the beginning of the season, that she has added mental toughness to her already impressive game. Today, in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, she did what few players have done: She looked across the net, saw Serena Williams, and didn't blink.
I'm not going to recount the details of the match. Williams won the first set 6-3, but probably not as easily as she would have liked. During the second set (Which Stephens won 7-5), she stretched out to return a drop shot and her back locked. During this tournament, the world number 3 has twisted her ankle, accidentally hit herself in the face with her racket, and thrown her back out. Brad Gilbert, appearing on ESPN, made a very good point when he said that once you get an injury, over-compensating makes it easy for you to sustain another injury.
Still, we're used to seeing even an injured Williams find a way to make it through a match with a win (again, I can't help but think of the time she had use of only one leg and one hand, yet won the match against a very good opponent). But Williams is older now, and--just as important--Stephens kept a cool head even though she lost the first set, had to deal with a disabled opponent, and also had to wonder what was coming after a frustrated Williams smashed her racket in the early part of the final set.
Stephens acknowledged after the match that after the back spasms began, Williams couldn't serve as fast as usual, but that her serve was still dead-on accurate. Eventually, Williams would (at least mentally) overcome her pain and play like she did in the first set. She broke Stephens at 3-all, and it was easy, at that point, to think "okay, the kid had some fun and did really well, but her tennis idol is about to show her how it's done." But Stephens broke back. The tension was heavy, as Stephens faced a break point in the ninth game. It seemed that all Williams would have to do was serve out the match and then go get some serious treatment.
But Stephens saved the break point. Assured and accurate at the net, as she was the entire match, Stephens used her considerable aggression to hold, and suddenly, before you could say "this set is going to drag out," Williams was broken at 15, and Stephens was in the semifinals.
I find it interesting that no one on television (at least in the USA) has mentioned Sloane Stephens' excellent junior doubles record. She is so comfortable coming forward--today, she was successful 18 of the 20 times she came to the net. She's moving better than she used to, she has a good serve, and she hits volleys with an obvious comfort level we don't always see.
Stephens' opponent in the semifinals will be defending champion Victoria Azarenka, who beat Svetlana Kuznetsova 7-5, 6-1. The first set was a tight, well-played contest, but then Kuznetsova "went away," and it didn't take much for Azarenka to clean up in the second set. I don't think that Stephens will be blown away by the occasion when she plays Azarenka--I hope she won't be--but she'll have to use that transition game like she never has before if she wants to compete with the world number 1. (One might be tempted to say "Good luck with that.")
As for Williams, who has won the Australian Open five times--you know how a big loss gets her going. She'll be back, and soon. And we can expect great things from her; the season is very young. Serena Williams, idol and mentor, will keep moving toward even more dramatic success than she's already experienced. And as she moves forward on her brilliant path, she may just hear the sound of footsteps behind her.