By Jane Voigt
Aside from the clash, battle, epic-to-be quarterfinal match between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer anticipated by pundits worldwide that thrive on projection, there was the hype around Serena Williams’ chance to even the score with Sloane Stephens.
Twenty-year-old Stephens defeated Williams at the Australian Open in the quarterfinal, this year. The upset set the stage for Stephens’ lasting support from the media, at least the American media. The attention is warranted to a degree. She outdoes herself at majors, which is a favorable sign for long-term stardom. She is the only woman, outside the top four, to have reached the second week of a major this year. That is an impressive stat.
Stephens’ is the age opposite of Williams. She is 20, the youngest woman in the fourth round while Serena is the oldest American woman in the singles draw. Her fourth-round berth is a record for Sloane. In her prior three appearances in New York, she had only reached the third round.
But Sloane has much to learn, and she may be the first one to say it but it’s hard to get any real information from her because of pat answers for just about anything asked. It’s as if a script was handed to her, and other players, by the WTA.
Here’s how a section her interview went after she defeated fellow American Jamie Hampton. Journalists began with the usual questions about the match, but quickly inquired about playing Serena.
Q. We know Serena hasn’t played yet, but what would you look forward to most if you play her Sunday?
SLOANE STEPHENS: I think it will be a great match obviously if we do play. We’ll probably play on Ashe. You know, it’s something I think everyone is looking forward to, so…
Q. Are you looking forward to it?
SLOANE STEPHENS: Of course. As I always say, I think it will be epic. I’m really looking forward to it. See what happens.
Q. What is the key to playing her? When you do well against her, what do you do well?
SLOANE STEPHENS: I play my game and I focus on myself. Just try to stay focused. That’s all you can really do.
Epic … I’m really looking forward to it … I play my game … focus on myself. Obviously, that’s it: just go out and play hard, just see what happens.
Her answers are a direct result of the questions asked, that’s true, but not much information is passed on. She guards herself on all fronts, which is similar to other players.
Stephens stepped over the boundary of safe public relations in May for ESPN The Magazine. Basically, she dissed Serena and dashed the hopes of a fairytale relationship between the two. Sloane was matter of fact in her description of Serena as a phony, from a jab about deleting Sloane from her Twitter account to not speaking to her since Melbourne, to not ever being a mentor because mentor’s would not do what she did.
“‘Like seriously,'” she began with Marin Cogan of Beyond The Baseline. “‘People should know. They think she’s so friendly and she’s so this and so that — no, that’s not reality.'”
To add fuel to Sloane’s fire, Serena was said to have sent a tweet after her loss in Australia that read, “I made you,” which Sloane thought was about her.
The platitudes returned when the two stepped back, just as they did after Maria Sharapova and Serena stepped into their respective corners after their pre-Wimbledon squabble. The story was that Serena and Maria pecked at each other because Williams had dated Grigor Dimitri before Maria took over. Williams then said that Sharapova was boring and would not be invited to ‘the cool parties’ at Wimbledon. Sharapova clawed back that Williams was a home wrecker, meaning that Serena’s relationship with coach Patrick Mouratoglou caused the breakup of his marriage.
Seems that the common denominator in both squabbles was Serena Williams, yet it takes two to tango a contentious conversation.
Serena had only good things to say about Sloane, after Williams loss to Sabine Lisicki in the semifinals of Wimbledon. Serena predicted Sloane would win the Championships and favored the youngest for the U. S. Open.
“Awesome,” Sloane said on Thursday. “Coming from one of the greatest players to ever play the game that feels really good.”
Yet, earlier in that interview Sloane referred to Serena as a ‘co-worker.’ “Obviously we’re coworkers, we’re Fed Cup teammates. But other than that, everything else is private, it’s fine.”
Stephens does not regret what happened since their last meeting nor does she wish to hash out the gory details. She has learned lessons. She is happy about herself and game.
Their match is about to begin on Arthur Ashe Stadium. And make no mistake about the power of resentments. Each woman harbors them, no matter the image they portray. Which one puts them to her advantage could win the match. Stephens better come out with a suit of armor on under her Under Armor dress. She’s going to need it.