Sloane, Serena ready for 'epic' rematch
NEW YORK -- If Sloane Stephens thought she would get a chance outside the professional shadow of Serena Williams, that notion was dispelled the moment the US Open draw was printed.
There she was, just 15 lines below the top-seeded Williams in the 128-line draw. Stephens, the No. 2 American woman in the world and No.15 seed here, is inextricably tied to the mythic Williams, for better or worse. And Sunday, the two women will meet in a fourth-round match that should pack all the emotional heft and strategic drama of a championship final.
"As I always say, I think it will be epic," Stephens said.
The two have met on the court only twice. Williams won the first meeting in Brisbane, and then came the infamous Australian Open quarterfinal last winter. It was a match that changed the dynamic between these women, and remains a palpable undercurrent as their rematch approaches.
Last January, Stephens, 20, was just coming into her own as a professional. Both Williams and Stephens had discussed their relationship, with Williams even using the word "mentor" at Wimbledon in 2012.
Take a look at the young Americans coming up. They differ tremendously from the crop Williams encountered when she was making her way into the sport. The women currently breaking into the professional ranks come from varying ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds -- probably due in some part to the inspiration Williams and her sister Venus have provided over the better part of two decades.
As the top American player for years, the 31-year-old Williams is a natural mentor for any young American, and Stephens always has been asked about their relationship.
"She's just a good friend," Stephens said at last year's US Open. "I love her to death."
And then Stephens became the only one of the rising Americans to beat Williams.
It was a three-setter, but Stephens took out her mentor 3-6, 7-5, 6-4. In an era when Williams' wins are furthering an already impressive legacy, the loss mattered -- despite an ankle injury that hampered her movement.
After that, Stephens aired their problems in ESPN The Magazine in May. She said her win had meant the end of all signs of friendship, that Williams hadn't looked at her or spoken to her since.
"People should know. They think she's so friendly and she's so this and she's so that -- no, that's not reality!" Stephens said. "You don't unfollow someone on Twitter, delete them off of BlackBerry Messenger. I mean, what for? Why?"
Stephens later apologized, and since then the women have been publicly cordial. Williams continues to speak highly of Stephens' game, while Stephens keeps the personal nature of their relationship private once again.
"Obviously we're coworkers, we're Fed Cup teammates," Stephens said. "But other than that, everything else is private. It's fine."
That would be enough drama for a single year, but instead, the two will match up in the fourth round at the US Open. Stephens, one of just four players to beat Williams this year, stands between Williams and a legacy-building Grand Slam title.
"Yeah, it's definitely been a learning experience from January 'til now," Stephens said. "I think I've had, you know, a lot of learning experiences. I've had a great year. I'm really pleased with the way it's gone. Obviously it's the last slam of the year. You want to do as best you can."
The fact remains that Stephens has a bit of an advantage few players can boast -- she beat Williams the last time they played.
"I definitely don't feel like I'm going in there as a favorite because she's playing great, even though I'm playing good, too," Williams said. "She really has nothing to lose and she excels in situations like that. So I think she'll be really good. I'll just have to see how it goes."
Williams said the two talk these days; they laughed together at Arthur Ashe Kids Day the Saturday before the Open started.
"I think, yeah, we're teammates. I mean, I've always really liked Sloane," Williams said. "I have a lot of respect for Sloane. I think she's a great girl. I think she's great for tennis, as well."
It isn't an easy spot for Stephens, facing the top seed. But for a player without a lot of history on tour, facing Williams brings up a lot more baggage than Stephens likely would want to carry around at the Open.
It turns out being a mentor, or looking up to one, can be more complicated than it seems.