NEW YORK – It will be epic, Sloane Stephens said, when she takes the largest court in the world to face “a co-worker” on Sunday.
What is the current relationship between Stephens, the mostly effervescent 20-year-old, and her opponent, Serena Williams, the fiercely competitive world No. 1?
Business-like, and the rest is private, Stephens said.
It’s been complicated, too, since January, when Stephens upset Williams in a breakthrough Australian Open quarterfinal.
Stephens and Williams were incorrectly billed by media as student-mentor going into their anticipated meeting Down Under. They were never that close. A schism surfaced between American No. 1 and American No. 2 after Stephens’ stinging comments in a May magazine article.
The co-workers will play for the first time since January in the fourth round of the U.S. Open on Sunday afternoon at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
For years, U.S. tennis fans have yearned for the rise of a player (man or woman) to succeed the Williams sisters, the only active Americans to win any Grand Slam singles titles.
Stephens has looked like that player in shooting up from No. 38 to No. 16 this year, making the second week of every major. She lost six games combined in her second and third-round romps here.
Stephens dispatched another rising American, Jamie Hampton, 6-1, 6-3 on Friday afternoon. In her post-match press conference, reporters asked 27 questions. Thirteen were about Williams.
Williams completed her 6-3, 6-1 third-round victory over Yaroslava Shvedova at 1:05 a.m. Saturday. Reporters asked her 13 questions. Eight involved Stephens. Is she sick of them?
“At 1:30 in the morning?” Williams said. “For sure.”
Stephens seemed uncharacteristically and unsurprisingly robotic when asked about Williams. They’re co-workers and Fed Cup teammates. She’s focused on herself. She repeated that the match will be epic. A lot of people will look forward to it.
Stephens said this year has been full of learning experiences, but she wouldn’t change a thing. That brought to mind her comments about Williams in the May 13 issue of <i>ESPN the Magazine</i>. Here’s an excerpt:
<i>“She’s not said one word to me, not spoken to me, not said hi, not looked my way, not been in the same room with me since I played her in Australia,” Stephens says emphatically. “And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter.”
Her mom tries to slow her down, but Sloane is insistent. “Like, seriously! People should know. They think she’s so friendly and she’s so this and she’s so that — no, that’s not reality! You don’t unfollow someone on Twitter, delete them off of BlackBerry Messenger. I mean, what for? Why?”</i>
Stephens was also irked by a three-word Williams tweet two days after their Australian Open quarterfinal – “I made you” – that Stephens believed was directed toward her.
Stephens was a Williams fan up until age 12, when she said she waited all day for autographs from the Williams sisters, but they passed by her three times without stopping to scribble on her poster.
“I think I’ll put up a poster of myself now,” Stephens said after beating Williams in Australia.
The ESPN article blew up. Stephens wasn’t happy, saying she thought that part of the recorded interview was off the record.
“We were eating pizza!” she told SI.com of the setting during the comments.
Stephens had a face-to-face chat with Williams, too, and then made more peace on Twitter.
“Guilty of being naive Much respect 4 @serenawilliams, a champ & the GOAT. We spoke, we're good. ONWARD! #lifelessons,” was posted.
Williams’ first thoughts on the story were that she didn’t have many thoughts, that she was a big Stephens fan and always had been.
As of Saturday, neither Stephens nor Williams followed the other on Twitter.
“Whenever I see her, we talk,” Williams said, adding they were “laughing a lot” at the light-hearted Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day event two days before the tournament.
For whatever remains to be settled off the court, there is plenty riding on Sunday’s outcome. Their head-to-head record is 1-1. If Stephens wins, her ranking will move close to or into the top 10, and she’ll move forward under more scrutiny than any women’s player here.
There would certainly be plenty more expectation than in Australia, when she edged a hobbled Williams in three sets and then fell 6-1, 6-4 to eventual champion Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals.
Four-time major champion Jim Courier said on CBS he thought only two players can stand up to Williams physically, Azarenka and Stephens.
“I think Sloane Stephens may just be the best mover in women’s tennis right now,” he said.
Stephens, Azarenka and Sabine Lisicki are the only players who have beaten Williams this year. Stephens said the win in Australia helped her for the rest of the year.
“If I can handle this, I can handle anything,” she said.
That will be tested in Arthur Ashe Stadium on national TV Sunday afternoon.
“She’s not intimated with playing on a court with 20,000 people,” six-time U.S. Open champion Chris Evert said on ESPN2. “She’s not intimated with playing the big names like Serena and Maria Sharapova.”