NEW YORK – As Serena Williams put away Sloane Stephens, thoughts inevitably turned to what’s next.
In the literal sense, the 16-time major champion Williams gets No. 18 Carla Suarez Navarro in the U.S. Open quarterfinals after advancing 6-4, 6-1 on Sunday.
But Williams addressed the more compelling angle shortly after a heavily scrutinized post-match handshake with Stephens at the center of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“How excited are we for the future of American tennis?” Williams asked the crowd in an on-court interview after smiling and exchanging a few words with Stephens.
The keyword is future, and just when the future will become the present. Hold the flux capacitor for now. Williams, 31, known as the most powerful woman in the sport’s history, showcased superior movement and defense in a tense 1 hour, 27 minute fourth-round victory. The American No. 1 vs. No. 2 marked the most anticipated match of the tournament, men’s or women’s, until a likely Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer quarterfinal later this week.
Arthur Ashe Stadium, which seats 22,000, was 90 percent full on an overcast day where the total crowd at the USTA National Tennis Center was 38,120, a tournament record.
It may prove Williams’ toughest (only?) test en route to potential title defense and fifth U.S. Open trophy.
Stephens, 20, while dictating more points than most Williams opponents, was a bit more erratic with 29 unforced errors to 15 winners. Her time will come, the consensus says, but not quite yet.
Some will say Williams exacted payback after losing to Stephens in the Australian Open quarterfinals in January (in three sets while hobbled with an ankle injury) and being slammed by Stephens in a May magazine article.
Some will say Williams proved that, when healthy, she’s without an American rival. What did Williams and Stephens say?
“It’s not about the stage for me,” Williams said. “It’s about getting the ball in.”
She did plenty of that. Williams didn’t blow Stephens off the court, but she was efficient enough with 22 winners to 13 unforced errors. She lost one point on her first three service games, while Stephens hung her head and squealed and squealed on mishits.
Williams broke Stephens’ serve to go up 4-2 in the first set, and while Stephens returned the favor, Williams later prevailed to break Stephens again on the third set point. She pumped her fist and held the clench for 10 seconds back to her seat.
Williams was a notably gracious winner after a more relaxed second set, applauding Stephens as she walked off the court and urging the crowd to support the younger American.
“I think she is at the next level,” Williams later said of Stephens. “Sometimes you need a win against top players. She’s beaten me, she’s beaten other players, so she’s there.”
Stephens repeated her analysis of the match three times.
“She’s No. 1 in the world for a reason,” she said.
But Stephens is better than her seed. She played top-five tennis Sunday, if you gauge how little the world’s other top players can challenge Williams these days.
Another thought, even as the second set breezed by in 35 minutes, was that it was a shame these two played so early in the tournament. Stephens’ ranking will keep rising this fall, meaning she shouldn’t have to play Williams until tournament quarterfinals, at least, in the future.
“Maybe one day when (Williams) is not playing, people would (say), ‘Maybe I wish I wasn’t on the same side (of the draw) as Sloane,’” Stephens said. “Things happen in their time. It’s an honor to be able to play on the court with one of the greatest tennis players of all time.”
Tennis uses a rolling 12-month points system for its rankings, where what happened one day ago means as much as what happened 364 days ago, but what happened 366 days ago means nothing.
Stephens wants to reach the top 10 at the end of the season. She’s currently ranked 16th (but seeded 15th here because of Maria Sharapova’s absence). The six-spot jump is very attainable given she didn’t play at all last fall after losing in the third round of the U.S. Open (torn abdominal muscle).
“Now I have a goal, and I want to reach that,” said Stephens, aiming to become the first American woman to join Williams in the top 10 in 2 1/2 years. “If I don’t make that, then shame on me.”
Stephens, the youngest in the top 30 but yet to reach a WTA event final, was one of only three players to make the round of 16 at all four 2013 majors.
She needs that kind of consistency in lesser tournaments in 2014 to boost her ranking even higher, closer to Williams’ territory.
That’s all in the future, one that still looks to be exciting now that Sunday’s in the past.
“Right now I’m carrying the little torch, but I’m okay with it,” Stephens said. “I embrace it, for now.”