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Thursday, 24 January 2013
2 Americans, 1 Back Spasm and an Excited Buzz
If asked on Tuesday evening to predict an upset amongst the remaining matches at the Australian Open, then the ousting of the seemingly indomitable Serena Williams during the quarter final stage of the ladies singles competition at the hands of a +20-ranked teenager would have been the one bottom of many people's lists. Yet many observer's pick for the tournament, who had looked invincible since last summer's Wimbledon Championships and had cruised with confident simplicity through the early rounds, was eventually undone by her countrywoman Sloane Stephens, a courageous opponent, who when dealt a card of considerable fortune found a way to take it, build upon it and ultimately refuse to cede the advantage that was offered.
Less than three weeks ago, on the courts of the Brisbane International, the two had met across the tennis net. On that occasion, Williams was the victor, two straightforward sets to quash the challenge of the hotly-tipped youngster. A similar story was in evidence on Wednesday, as for nearly two sets, Williams looked to have the match under her belt, the mentor instructing her charge, dictating the points with ease to go a set and 2-0 up. But just as the match looked to move into foregone conclusion territory, Stephens began to hit back. Suddenly she unleashed the aggression, previously caged by what may have been a hint of veneration, and Serena was pegged back to 2-all with a service break. As the next three games progressed, Stephens began to look the dominant player pinning Serena behind the baseline as she took shots early to move the 31-year-old around the court.
Contrastingly, Serena grew tentative, invoking memories of her second set teetering against Agnieszka Radwanska in the 2012 Wimbledon final. This time though, while serving at 3-4 in the second, the American vet rushed forward to retrieve a drop shot, and whether it was the tightness caused by the increased purpose of Stephens, or a mistimed over-exertion, Williams looked to twinge something in her back. Obviously hampered by the injury, the previously imperious #3 seed found herself unable to serve or swing at her usual level, perhaps dropping to 70/75% of her normal intensity. And although Stephens took some time to warm up to this swing in circumstance, putting balls out of the court as the notion of this unexpected opportunity entered her mind, she eventually found the crack on the forehand, to begin whipping the ball past Serena and take the second set.
Stephens continued to fluctuate in the third set, never generating the consistency to pull enough ahead of Williams, who despite being well below par was still competing at a level that would have troubled the majority of opponents. But with the score tied at 44, Williams brought up break points and the match looked to be heading towards an inevitable conclusion, the moment having passed for the 3-time junior slam champion. But, as if charged by the Serena winners, Stephens broke out into copycat mode, reeling off an unreturnable forehand of her own to move within one game of the victory.
It wasn't long coming, as four uncharacteristic errors (even for a below-par Serena) gifted the tie to Stephens, blowing open the draw and taking the 19-year-old to her first ever senior slam semi-final. 36 75 64.
Although it is tempting to refer to the match as a passing of the baton, from one generation of American women's tennis to its new blood, the ease with which Williams captured the first set suggests that the gap between the two is still large enough to guarantee the #3 seed a straight sets victory if she's injury-free and on top of her game. What it is more indicative of is the potential of Stephens. This three set victory was a realisation of the probability that she will, perhaps sooner than anticipated, be the player to lift grand slam trophies across the continents and replace Williams as the #1 US tennis player. She isn't quite there at the moment, the experience of competing against this type of opponent on the biggest stages in successive rounds may prove her undoing for a year or two to come. But with the mental fortitude that saw her grapple her own nerves to grasp the opportunity when it was presented to her, coupled with a beast of a power game, Sloane Stephens is creating an excited buzz around her place in the future of the women's tennis tour.