Changing of The Guard?

By Jane Voigt

Serena Williams normally wins. That’s why she has 15 Grand Slam singles titles and 12 women’s doubles titles. That Sloane Stephens, a 19-year-old American in her second-ever Australian Open, stopped the compelling favorite is remarkable. However it isn’t a changing of the guard. 

Serena’s power and determination hasn’t and won’t alter because of the loss. She will brush herself off and come back with jet engines tuned. She is not a quitter. If she were, she would have bowed out of this match in the second set when she screamed in pain after running down a drop shot.

In her press conference, she was asked if she thought about retiring. 

Serena, “Are you kidding me? I’m not retiring!”

Williams thought the question alluded to retirement, like millions of work-a-day people supposedly do at 65. “I thought you meant my career. Like, you’re crazy.”

However she had consider leaving this match, “like for a nanosecond. I mean, it’s a quarterfinal of a Grand Slam. Even if I have to take off in a wheeler before I retire.”

During the finals of Miami in 2009, she was in the same predicament against Victoria Azarenka. Obviously injured, she carried on until the expected became evident — Azarenka won. She went about her business the way Stephens played through knowing Serena was not firing on all cylinders. 

The ability of Sloane to concentrate on Sloane’s game and not get ruffled in the peripheral scene showed how poised she is and mentally tough. This teen that brought about the biggest upset of the tournament is one tough player. It’s mighty difficult to march from point to point with the likes of Serena Williams — her mentor off court — across the net. 

Stephens kept her cool, too, during and after Williams obliterated her racquet as a code violation warning was leveled by the chair umpire.

“I’ve seen her do it before,” Sloane said. “She’s still going to play no matter what, smashed racquets, no smashed racquets.”

Stephens drew inspiration from the racquet episode, too, telling herself, “Okay, now you even have to play harder because she’s going to be firing.”

Williams attempted to raise her game in the third, but was broken to lose the quarterfinal, 36 75 64. Her last shot was indicative of her back malady. She stood awkwardly tall and stiff. She did not coil her body or rotate her hips into the shot. She couldn’t. 

Williams initially downplayed the back injury at her press conference. “There’s no excuse there,” she said, yet immediately went into the progression of the injury. “Well, a few days ago it just got really tight and I had no rotation on it.”

Several sources noted that Serena acted shaky from the first point. That she was off. On-court microphones then captured the frustration that fed a non-Serena performance: ‘this has been the worst two weeks.’ 

“For a Grand Slam, absolutely,” she told the press. “I’m almost relieved that it’s over because there’s only so much I felt I could do.”

Serena, though, was not full of praise for Stephens, which is par for the course. Williams is not a gracious person. She does not reveal opinions about others, even those that have demonstrably beaten her, which Sloane did not do. Even when she acts in the capacity of a mentor off court.

“She’s a good player,” Serena began. “She runs fast and she gets a lot of balls back. That’s always a plus to have in your career.”

Pretty flat. 

Roger Federer defeated his hero, Pete Sampras, in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2001. Federer was 19 at the time, same as Stephens. The loss for Sampras was unexpected, but Federer had been coming into focus on the men’s scene for a couple years. 

He did not win Wimbledon, his first major title, until 2003 — two years later. In fact he didn’t advance beyond a fourth round for the two years and was ousted in the first round three times during that time. 

Stephens will experience this type of progression in her career, most likely. She is young, extremely talented, but curve balls are out there. 

But she has to temper her expectations or smash racquets in the face of failure, which isn’t a good idea but tennis players do it frequently. Think about another sport where players destroy balls or bats or sticks. Tennis is special this way, which isn’t an endorsement of the behavior.

American Melanie Oudin stirred hope in 2009 as she ripped her way to the fourth round of Wimbledon at 17. At the U. S. Open that same year she startled fans again, as she went to the quarterfinals. Since then her ranking has plummeted to 370. She hasn’t progress past the second round of a major since. 

Stephens should be very proud. She has the game. She has the mind. She is on her way. Her breezy, cute mannerisms off court will endear her to fans, although she already has 35,000 followers on Twitter. Plus she had 213 messages on her phone after the match.

Asked how she planned to respond to all of them, “Well, I’m still trying to figure that out because I thought it was free to receive text messages, but someone told me otherwise. So I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to do because otherwise my phone bill is going to be crazy and my mom is going to be like, Oh my god, your phone bill. She’s going to be like … the money you were going to buy yourself something nice with, you’re going to pay  your phone bill.”

Who else but a teenage talks like that? 

Stephens will play the #1 seed and defending champion, Victoria Azarenka, in one semifinal scheduled for Thursday in Melbourne at either 11 a.m. or after 1:30 p.m. For people living on the east coast of the United States that translates to 7 p.m. Wednesday evening or after 9:30 p.m.




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