Sloane Stephens sends Serena on flight out of Melbourne
Chances to beat Serena the last six months have been few and far between. Only Angelique Kerber was able to convert meeting Serena on an off day in Cincinnati into a win. Annieszka Radwanska got under her skin in the second set at Wimbledon and took it to a third, but the chance came and went and so did Agnieszka’s chances for the title. Azarenka had her chances at 30-30, 5-3 in the third in the US Open final but did not have the game to take it.
For Sloane Stephens, the chance came out of the blue. In her first major quarter-final and up against no less than her childhood idol Serena, the butterflies were fluttering like crazy in her stomach, crashing and diving into one another and the lining of her stomach. Errors flew from her racket as the first set flew by in what have been a blur. Down 0-2 in the second, the butterflies seemed a little calmer, flying next to one another, flapping their wings with less panic. Her shots landed in, she found some rhythm. At 1-2, she got a break. 2-2 and she was here to play. The butterflies were even showing off their brightly coloured wings. She returned the consistent depth and weight of shot of Williams with not just interest but with hard nosed questions, at times not getting any answers. Mixing up the pace and length, running sweetly into whatever was fired at her and then hitting the sweet spot on the return, flying to the net to put away volley winners, Sloane Stephens showed what hard work could do: land you in the quarters of a Major playing your best tennis. Now all she needed was what hard work and being in the business end of a Major can bring: chances.
At 3-3, Serena, wearing her poker face now she was being, finally, tested, ran into the net and got way down for a volley, yelling as she came up. She hobbled over to the service line. She winced and placed her hand on her back. The serve was little more than a tap. As the points went on, Serena could not get down a serve past 80mph and she could not rotate into her shots. A butterfly herself a few games before, she was now without wings.
This was Sloane Stephen’s chance. Her recent gear change showcased she had the game to push Serena this match. Coupled with her opponent’s injury, Stephens could, if she took the chance, take the match and become the first teen semi-finalist at a Major since Chakvetadze in New York in 2007. Sloane was in chance taking mode. She broke Serena for 4-3. Serena took a medical time out, leaving the court. Back spasms they reported. On returning, Stephens held for 5-4. Serena held, too, hitting hard and using up every inch of the court.
Serving for the set, her chance to contest Serena Williams in a third set for a place in the final on her racket, Sloane Stephens felt the butterflies panicking again, wings flapping, crashing around, confused at why the butterfly catcher who wanted to put them in glass cases and add to their collection was whacking his net against trees when he had always had such a good aim. Errors flew where winners had flown and it was 5-5. Serena though, seeming to be surviving both spasms and Stephens, was also in error mode, perhaps confused why her opponent could not take the chance that was not just begging to be taken but in all out alms demanding mode. Serena was in demonstrative mode, too. If rolling her ankle in round one and smacking herself in the lip in round two had been been enough, here was her third lashing of bad luck and the match was slipping from her grasp but her opponent could not take it either. Unable to string two decent points together, Serena dropped her serve. On the change of ends, she smashed her racket, screaming in disgust.
Sloane Stephens came back out onto the court. Chance, she had decided, had come her way and it was her duty to take it. After all, why else all the toil? Sloane Stephens came to terms with the mission before her. The butterflies once more settled, opened their wings, all the colors of the rainbow on display, the butterfly catcher collapsed by the tree, and Sloane Stephens was a set all against Serena Williams in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open.
The third and final set. Serena had not lost a three setter since losing to Martina Hingis in 2001, winning 12 of them since then. Sloane Stephens had won two from a total of ten matches in Melbourne. It was the younger American who challenged first in the final set, holding a break point at 2-1. Serena saved it with a serve down the tee and a smash, the spasms under control, her never say die mentality as big as both shots. A netted forehand from Sloane and it was 2-2. Another chance come and gone for Stephens. Two games later at 3-3, it was Serena who had the chance, earning a break point. Serena did not waste it. That was what had separated her from the rest the last six months. She rarely gave chances out and when she did she took them back and when she got them she took them. It is hard to beat someone who can control matters like so.
4-3 up and serving, it looked like the anticipated meeting between Azarenka and Serena was soon to be written on the next day’s schedule. At 30-30 a Serena error handed Sloane a chance to break point. It was here that the butterflies took their positions. The first one glided along, a sliced backhand. The next flew at an angle, a cross-court backhand, carved into the service box. Then a loopy backhand laden with spin. The change of depth, the different balls, the butterflies had dazzled with variety. Serena was forced into error. The break back was Sloane’s. The butterflies joined hands and curtsied to the cheering crowd.
At 4-4, Serena finds her game again, coming forward, hitting down the line winners. A forehand long from Sloane and it is break point Serena. Sloane goes forehand to forehand with her idol. Then, when the moment is right, Sloane goes down the line. Deuce. A backhand down the line out on the return from Serena and it is advantage Sloane. This time, Serena hits a forehand down the line winner. Deuce. Right now, the mood Serena is in, it is on her racket. Sloane though has other ideas. She hits a backhand cross court, comes to the net on a slice and Serena nets the passing shot. On game point, Sloane spins her serve into the service box. Serena gets to it and sends it down the middle of the court. Her careful play is paid back in kind. Sloane sends a loopy forehand back to Serena. With no pace on it, and no idea what is coming at her next, Serena nets the response.
5-4 Stephens. She is one game away from getting to where her idol has been so, so many times. Serena serves and hits a backhand error. She smashes her racket on the ground and screams. A couple of point later, Serena hits a forehand passing shot long. 15-30. On the next point, Sloane sends back rallying shots, the butterflies now frozen in confusion, whispers abound they might soon be released. Serena nets a backhand.
15-40. Sloane Stephens has two chances to make the semi-final. Two chances to put her childhood idol to the sword, a feat no one wants to achieve but which has to be done in the world Sloane Stephens lives in, a slaying that must take place if she wants to inhabit the world her Idol lives in, the world she helped make for her, the world she wants her to live in, too. Serena serves. The two rally shots back and forth. It is Serena who falters. Another backhand into the net. Sloane Stephen’s jaw drops. The butterflies vanish to wherever it is they go. The two, friends off court, embrace at the net. They both know the score. It was Sloane who took her chances. Serena knows they come few and far between, that they are earned not given. Serena looks on as the young woman celebrates. These are the chances she had helped create. There is no one on the tour she would rather see take them. Only next time, and she would do all she could to make sure of it, not against her.
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