Never mind the players. Sure, it’s probably tough for them, grinding away in the heat against the best players in the world. But for American tennis fans, the Australian Open is a true test of will. All the matches take place within a 14-hour window, which essentially lasts from the second the workday ends to the second the next one begins. While there’s something exhilarating about live tennis late at night, the Christmas-morning excitement of the first Grand Slam of the year is muffled rather quickly by the heavy and overlapping realities of intense sleep-deprivation, a shelved social life, and responsibilities avoided.
And yet, night after night, we stay up. Part of it is force of habit, but most of it is because, every year, the Australian Open gives us moments that make the fanaticism and sleep deficit worth it.
In this year’s first week alone, 17 year-old Madison Keys and 42 year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm both staged age-defying, upset-filled runs to the third round. Over the weekend the perennial underachiever Jeremy Chardy blew a two-sets-to-love lead over title dark-horse Juan Martin Del Potro, then still managed to pull off the upset in five sets, while the Mr. Cellophane of Swiss tennis, Stanislas Wawrinka, pushed world No. 1 Novak Djokovic to the brink of defeat in a brilliant showcase of strike-first tennis under the lights of Rod Laver Arena. It was a captivating, if not somewhat surreal and hazy, first week. And then, as the top seeds cruised towards the semifinals, Sloane Stephens showed up.
Well, “showed up” isn’t quite right. Sloane Stephens has been on the radar of tennis fans—especially American tennis fans—for some time. It’s hard to hide a 19-year-old with a lethal forehand, Crest-commercial smile, and magnetic personality. The teenager has been steadily climbing the rankings for three years, and came into the tournament ranked No. 25. Unlike many of her closed-off and cranky peers, Stephens is weirdly calm on the court and not-at-all-weirdly wide-open off of it. Last year she made the fourth round of the French Open and the third round at both Wimbledon and the US Open. She was expected to build on that this year, but she was not expected to do what she did.
Stephens, armed with a career-high ranking of No. 29, had already made a quarterfinal and semifinal in 2013 before she even made it to Melbourne. There, she took advantage of a generous draw by taking out four players—all considered up-and-comers, but with an average age was 20, an average ranking was 63, and one WTA title between them. Her reward was a quarterfinal berth, but her opponent was Serena Williams. It was Stephen’s first Major quarterfinal and Serena’s 35th. Serena was supposed to win the tournament; Sloane was supposed to be happy just to be to be there. You have, by this point, probably heard how this worked out, even if you didn’t stay up.
Boy gets girl. Nerd gets revenge. Batman Something Something. The narratives are there first, and then we try to squeeze the stories into them. And so it was with this quarterfinal match-up, which was supposed to be a mentor/mentee thing, a legend teaching a valuable lesson to an upstart, to be paid off years down the road. This is not how it went. Instead of “legend” and “upstart” on Rod Laver Court there were two athletes, in the present tense, and their respective obstacles. The story was, it turned out, theirs to write.
It was not a high-quality tennis match from beginning to end. Sloane was thoroughly outplayed in the first set, and went down an early break in the second. But after Serena pulled up lame charging the net later in that set, the match flipped. Serena continued to fight, but Sloane was now able to move her around; the match opened up.
Which is not the same thing as saying that it was over. In the second and third sets, even as Serena struggled, Sloane’s nerves were palpable. While she was still exponentially more poised than any 19-year-old should ever be, she was not zoning, she was not oblivious to the occasion, and she was not playing as if she had nothing to lose. Which was understandable. Her opponent could still beat 90 percent of the tour on one foot, and was certainly still capable of beating Sloane. Serena was injured and Sloane was gliding around the court hitting winners, but it still seemed like Serena would somehow survive. That’s just how the story goes.
And then swiftly, shockingly, Sloane found herself at match point, and then Serena hit a trembling backhand into the middle of the net, and then Sloane Stephens had defeated Serena Williams at Rod Laver Arena and made it to the semifinals of the Australian Open. She dropped her racket to her side, looked up at her camp with eyes glazed in disbelief, and laughed. It was around 1am on the East Coast.
Upsets happen all the time, even in Grand Slams, even occasionally against Serena Williams. But Sloane Stephens is different, and this win feels different. Last March I got an opportunity to talk one-on-one with her for half an hour, and found myself in the company of a 19-year-old who radiated confidence that would make people of all ages envious. She was mature and polished, but still recognizably—and, amazingly, happily—a teenager. No pretension, no façade, no filter, no hesitation to talk and laugh about any subject, be it her spending habits, love life, card games with Serena and Venus during the Fed Cup, or the current state of women’s tennis. This extended to the (not widely loved) WTA No. 1 Victoria Azarenka. “I love Vika. You could tell me she sucks toes—I wouldn’t care,” she laughed. “She’s been nice to me since I met her for the first time. She and my mom are always chatting it up. People are always telling me they hate her. I don’t know why.”
"Everybody likes a winner,” she added. “I mean, I know I like a winner."
On the television next to us, Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova battled it out in the semifinals of the Miami tournament. Sloane had made the third round earlier that week before losing to Sharapova in straight sets; her ranking, at that moment, had reached a career high of No. 70. Sloane initially claimed to not be watching the match, but interrupted our conversation to note that Sharapova lost five straight games to squander the first set after being up 4-1. “No one cares about women’s tennis,” she admitted with a sigh. “People think it’s boring….I mean, I don’t think it’s boring, it’s more like the media says it’s boring.”
A member of her team who was eavesdropping from the other room suddenly piped in. I figured he was going to steer us away from a conversation that could be controversial, but instead he joined.
“Serena and Venus were the last American superstars,” he said. “And now you have Sloane and a new generation coming up. Do you think if women’s tennis was a better game in the United States that people would [still think of it as boring]?” He was off message, or maybe not. “I wonder that working for Sloane. Would it be different if, instead of the stars being Azarenka and Wozniacki it was Sloane?”
Sloane seemed to think it would. “I mean this girl, she’s from Denmark,” she said, pointing to the television screen where Wozniacki was being berated by her father and coach Piotr during a changeover. “People [in the United States] are like, ‘Where is that?’ It’s just different.”
Just 24 hours after she shocked the world by taking out Serena Williams on Wednesday, Sloane Stephens took the court against Victoria Azarenka for a place in her maiden Grand Slam final. Her opponent was different, but her odds were the same.
Azarenka dominated the first set by exposing the weaknesses in Sloane’s game—her serve placement, her backhand, and her shot selection. But up a break early in the second set, as Williams had the day before, Azarenka seemed to tweak her ankle. At first it was hard to tell how significant the injury was. During points the Belarusian seemed to be moving well, but she was labored and clearly frustrated between them. And then, as she served for the match at 5-3, her forehand disappeared. She hit error after error after error on that side as she wasted match point after match point after match point. Five of them. Sloane, who recognized the opportunity, broke back.
During the changeover, right before Sloane stepped up to serve at 4-5 to stay in the tournament, Azarenka took a ten-minute off-court medical timeout. Sloane remained on court in her chair with a towel draped over her legs the entire time. She sat, and waited. At one point, she put on some chapstick. Commentators, both the insomniacs on twitter and the professionals in the booth, were not nearly as idle. It was, in both venues, called craven gamesmanship. When they finally resumed play, Sloane—who had held serve only once all day—was broken for the match.
“I did lose the next game, but I wouldn't say that's because of the medical timeout,” Stephens said after the match. “Of course, I love Vika and we share the same agent. We actually are pretty good friends.” Told that Vika’s breathing problems had led her to take the time-out, Sloane added, “Like if it was one of my friends, I would say, ‘Oh my God, that sounds like a PP. Which is a personal problem.’” And that was that, although of course it wasn’t.
Sloane Stephens’ life will never be the same. She came to Australia part of a large group of women in their teens and early twenties who were considered to be the future of the sport. She is leaving Australia in a significantly smaller group, as a breakout star.
There will be endorsement deals, late-night talk-show appearances, red carpets, probably some TMZ. And there will be new narratives, because there is no going back to the role she was cast in before she beat Serena. She will, whether she likes it or not,be defined on someone else’s terms from here on out. She will be the next Serena Williams, and this will be considered a changing of the guard. She will be the next Melanie Oudin, and this will be considered a fun, fleeting one-off fluke. Both comparisons are alternately lazy, limiting and insulting—Serena isn’t going anywhere, for one thing, and has nothing in common with Stephens but complexion; poor Oudin was irresponsibly created over one wild and wonderful week at the U.S. Open in 2009, and has been torn down just as carelessly since. But it’s out of Sloane Stephens’ hands, now.
Sloane and her team were right last year—the American media and public are hungry for a new WTA star. Tennis globalization is unstoppable, but sports-nationalism is still significant, and Sloane Stephens’ name is easier to pronounce, and her background easier to understand for the majority of the American public. This is invaluable to an American sports media eager for either the next Serena or another Serena. There are papers to be sold, and pages to be viewed. It’s silly to pretend this isn’t a consideration.
But this doesn’t mean that Sloane Stephens is considering it. Immediately after she upset Serena Williams, the first thing Sloane Stephens did was check her cell phone. Then she asked how many twitter followers she had gained. Then she talked about the pair of shoes she was going to buy herself. She was, in short, Sloane Stephens, even at the moment that she became something and someone else.
That is, she was even-tempered, authentic, personable, and smiling a smile—one which never leaves her face—that could sell a sinking ship. She is young, but she is not naive: Sloane Stephens knows that her phenomenal fortnight has made her a star, and that her story is now public property. But she, and we, should remember that the story isn’t finished yet. There is no need to recycle headlines, or compare and contrast, or project or prognosticate. We might as well let Sloane be Sloane. It’s who she’s going to be, anyway, and it’s already worth losing a couple of hours sleep to watch her be who she is, and watch her become what she will become.
Lindsay Gibbs is a writer, sports fan, and tennis obsessive living in Astoria, NY. She's a co-founder of The Changeover, and tweets at @linzsports. She is also the author of the historical-fiction novel Titanic: The Tennis Story.