In the most shocking result of the 2013 Australian Open to date, the 19-year-old rising star Sloane Stephens capitalized on an ailing Serena Williams to reach the semifinals in just her seventh appearance at a major main draw. Rallying from losing the first set, Stephens conquered not only her injured but still formidable foe but her own nerves in a 3-6 7-5 6-4 rollercoaster that knocked out the title favorite.
Off to a shaky start on return, Serena allowed Stephens to hold comfortably in her first two service games. The teenager showed no nerves in her debut on Rod Laver Arena, a smaller venue after all than the US Open’s Arthur Ashe Stadium, where she had played before. Serena’s early sluggishness thus might have caused concern had she not continued to excel behind her serve, which Stephens could not solve. The first set thus resembled the first set of their Brisbane meeting, an encounter that stayed on serve until the veteran broke the youngster late. Not through three service games did Stephens even lose a point on serve, while Serena conceded only two points in her first four.
In the crucial eighth game, that leisurely rhythm changed completely. Offered an opportunity when the teenager sprayed a careless forehand on the first point, Serena stormed to triple break point with more focused shot-making. Two of the break points slipped away on a crisp net approach by Stephens and a forehand error by Serena, but a moderately forceful inside-out forehand produced the only break that the elder American needed. She served out the set despite some uncharacteristically tepid groundstrokes and a wandering first serve, and from there the outcome seemed certain.
While Stephens continued to stand toe to toe with Serena’s athleticism and power in long rallies, the cracks began to appear in her still-raw game. A wild inside-out forehand handed another break to the 14-time major champion at the start of the second set. To her credit, the teenager rallied to hold her next service game and place Serena in a spot of bother at deuce. In reaching that stage, she retrieved a sparkling cross-court forehand from her opponent before transitioning from defense to offense and finishing the point at net.
Remarkably, a dip in Serena’s form restored the set to level terms. An emboldened Stephens capitalized on the opening and edged ahead with a solid hold before she again took her opponent to deuce in the next game. Starting to concede pedestrian errors, Serena struggled to deliver the decisive blow in rallies that grew ever longer as the teenager defended ever more doggedly. The pace on the veteran’s first serve plummeted dramatically, denying her the free points on which she relies. More willing to play the aggressor than earlier in the match, Stephens struck for a break that allowed her to serve for the set.
In apparent discomfort over the previous few games, Serena looked reluctant to play more than a few strokes on any set point. She unleashed two vicious second-serve returns to reach 30-30, but Stephens opened the court smoothly to reach set point. There, a nervous backhand sailed over the baseline, and a double fault completed the swing from set point to break point. Able to stay in the rally long enough to profit from another Stephens error, Serena moved back on serve and summoned the trainer.
An issue with the superstar’s lower back appeared the culprit, rather than the ankle that she had twisted earlier in the tournament. Serena returned to gallop through her service game with the assistance of a jaded Stephens, who had sat through the interruption rather than keeping herself in rhythm by practicing swings at the baseline. Still serving at a greatly reduced pace, she held at love and looked much crisper on return than on serve. For her part, a clearly (and understandably) rattled Stephens struggled to keep her footwork crisp and sharpen her focus on the game.
Down break point, however, she cracked a smooth inside-out forehand winner to prevent Serena from finishing the match too comfortably. Trailing 0-30 in turn, two points from a final set, the veteran unleashed a series of dazzling forehands to compensate for her wilting serve. From deuce, Serena dropped the next two points with routine errors to send this quarterfinal most unexpectedly into a deciding set.
Holding serve despite some adversity, Stephens settled her nerves better at the start of the third than she had at the end of the second. Her shoulders slumping and head dropping, Serena nevertheless managed to hold serve routinely. But another series of impotent errors left her infuriated with herself, hammering her racket onto the court with more ferocity than she had shown on her groundstrokes. While probably ill-advised for her back, that release of angst jolted her with energy. She saved a break point in the next game with a magnificent first serve down the center stripe, signaling her renewed commitment to the battle.
A badly botched forehand from Stephens brought the third set to 2-2. Holding for the loss of just a single point, the underdog did not lose heart when the previous opportunity disappeared. Serena visibly exhorted herself as she climbed out of trouble again, salvaging a game that she trailed 15-30. To be fair, Stephens contributed to the escape by plunking a routine second-serve return in the net that set up game point and missing another straightforward backhand to end the game. On the third point at 3-3, Serena covered the court brilliantly as she willed herself past the pain in outlasting her opponent through a long rally. Two vital break points came and went soon afterwards, the teenager’s retrievals forcing the veteran to hit one shot too many. With a forehand sent over the baseline, Stephens allowed a third break point, and this time Serena found the net with her backhand. The fourth time proved the charm as the latter’s defensive scramble left the former with a difficult ball on the baseline that she netted, probably having thought that she had won the point on the previous shot.
An unfortunate miss from Stephens seemed to give Serena an early foothold in her next service game, but a forehand error and a double fault positioned the younger American at break point. Although the first vanished, the second ended with a netted groundstroke for 4-4. Unable to keep the momentum in her corner, Stephens fell behind quickly again. A smooth backhand drop volley brought her to 30-30, but a forehand down the line brought Serena to deuce, and a massive forehand return earned another break point. The women traded stunning forehand winners down sidelines as the deuces continued to trickle until Stephens found just enough consistency to eke out a grinding hold.
On the brink of defeat, Serena dropped the key first point with a loose forehand, only to draw level with a smash. Stephens survived a poor decision on an approach shot when the pass sailed well over the baseline, leading to 15-30. Two netted backhands later, a drained and aching Serena yielded the battlefield to her young challenger, ending her hope of capturing another Australian Open or another Serena Slam.
Ultimately handling a difficult situation with poise, Stephens won her first career major quarterfinal and improbably has reached the final four in Melbourne. She will face world #1 Victoria Azarenka in a match that again seems a foregone conclusion on paper. With the confidence of today’s victory behind her, however, perhaps Stephens can inject intrigue into that semifinal as well.