You can see it. In every tournament Sloane Stephens enters, the "dialed in" to "in a funk" ratio (the fire-to-funk rate?) shifts ever-so-slightly in a more positive direction. Her footwork is just about perfect, her touch and her speed are top-notch, her groundstrokes are just fine, and her power is easily above average. Her knowledge of the game is, as with any 19-year-old, still in development, but it has improved dramatically in just the last year. She has gone from prospect (she has been the "youngest player in the Top __" for a while now) to soon-to-be Top 20 player when the new rankings come out after the Australian Open, and it seems only a matter of time until she enters the Top 10. She is more composed than a 19-year-old probably should be, and after spending quite a while as the future of American tennis, she appears ready for the present tense.
Make no mistake: If Serena Williams doesn't tweak her back in the second set of Stephens' eventual 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 win in the Australian Open quarterfinals, Stephens probably doesn't win. Williams is still the more athletic of the two players, but back spasms took away just enough of her mobility and made her just unsure enough in her movement to even things out in that regard. But Stephens' defensive capabilities and her ability to steer Williams into as many unsure changes-of-direction as possible won her the match. Williams fought a number of ailments in the last two weeks, from a turned ankle to a self-inflicted racquet-to-the-face accident, but she still had enough game to plow into the quarterfinals nearly unchallenged. Stephens challenged her, immediately overcame a break of serve at 3-3 in the third set with a break of her own, then closed out the match with another break.
The lapses will probably do her in against Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals. They were still there against Williams, for a game or two in the first set, for a couple more games in the second following Williams' injury timeout, and for a single service game in the third. The shoulders slumped, the body language turned sour, and the footwork got lost along the way. Tennis is cruel in its individuality, its refusal to allow you to recover with help from others. And when you are 19 years old, in a sport where teenagers are almost never allowed to break through anymore (the veterans are too good and too smart, and they stay in better shape for longer periods of time these days), these are the lapses that kill you. That Stephens overcame them to beat even a hobbled Serena Williams says a lot, and that she has advanced to a slam semifinal despite these lapses says even more.
Let's take a look at the current WTA Top 10 and what each woman had accomplished at age 19.
- No. 1 Victoria Azarenka: finished 2008 ranked 15th. Best slam result: fourth round at the 2008 French Open.
- No. 2 Maria Sharapova: finished 2006 ranked second. Won Wimbledon in 2004 (at 17) and the U.S. Open in 2006 (at 19), advanced to four other slam semifinals.
- No. 3 Serena Williams: finished 2000 ranked sixth. Won the U.S. Open in 1999 at 18, reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2000.
- No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska: finished 2008 ranked 10th. Best slam result: quarterfinal appearances at the 2008 Australian Open and Wimbledon.
- No. 5 Angelique Kerber: finished 2007 ranked 84th. Had yet to advance beyond the first round of a slam.
- No. 6 Na Li: finished 2001 ranked 303rd. Would not qualify for her first slam draw until 2005.
- No. 7 Sara Errani: finished 2006 ranked 171st. Would not qualify for her first slam draw until 2007.
- No. 8 Petra Kvitova: finished 2009 ranked 62nd. Best slam result: fourth round at the 2008 French Open and 2009 U.S. Open.
- No. 9 Sam Stosur: finished 2003 ranked 153rd. Best slam result: second round at 2003 Wimbledon and the 2003 U.S. Open.
- No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki: finished 2009 ranked fourth. Reached the finals of the 2009 U.S. Open.
That Stephens had already reached the Top 30 heading into the Australian Open is a bigger accomplishment than half of the current Top 10. That she has now reached a slam semifinal at 19 is more than seven of the 10 can say.
Stephens is not yet an elite tennis player. Her funks are not yet behind her. Her success in Melbourne in no way guarantees a future trip to, or a long stay in, the WTA Top 10. If anything, she has been a bit lucky in her slam draws over the past year. She did not beat a single seeded player in advancing to the fourth round of the French Open, the third round of Wimbledon or the third round of the U.S. Open in 2012. Even in this tournament, she did not face a seeded player until Serena Williams, and Williams was hobbled throughout the final two sets of the match. Ryan Harrison, a 20-year-old American on the men's tour who has faced (and been beaten by) an elite player by the second round of every slam, would kill for a single slam draw like the ones Stephens has consistently received. But you need a little luck on your way toward the top, and you still have to take advantage of the luck you have been given. Luck or no, funks or no, Stephens looks the part of a Top 20 player these days, and one could only say that about a portion of the current WTA Top 10 at 19 years of age.
Stephens' surge has to be considered a great thing for tennis as a whole, at least as it is perceived in the United States. Maria Sharapova is still a household name and has played some of the best tennis of her career over the past year (and especially the last week and a half). Victoria Azarenka is palling around with LMFAO's Redfoo. Na Li's own trip back to the Aussie semifinals has China's full attention. Britain has a pair of rising potential stars: 18-year-old Laura Robson, who disposed of Petra Kvitova in the second round before losing to Stephens, and Heather Watson, who has reached the third round of two of the last three slams. And a full 22 players in the current WTA Top 100 are 21 or younger. The depth of the women's game is better than it was even a year ago, which leads to more exciting slam fortnights. But the emergence of a new American to root for -- especially one with personality, one who openly yearned for more Twitter followers in the postmatch press conference -- is still a key to getting, and maintaining, Americans' attention. And in Sloane Stephens, America has a new star to watch. Now, if only Serena Williams can stay healthy for a while longer.
Serena Williams is 31. There's a reason why 31-year-olds often struggle to maintain elite play in tennis, and it's not because they don't work as hard or because they simply lose their game. Sometimes their bodies simply get in the way more frequently at 31 than at 28, or 25, or 22. Williams has fought plenty of ailments through the years -- that she has won 15 slams despite missing 11, almost three full years' worth, to injury over the past 13 years is staggering -- and there's nothing saying the back injury she suffered on Tuesday against Stephens will keep her out for any extended amount of time. (Backs are particularly maddening in their ability to flare up out of nowhere, recover, then flare up again.) But she clearly wasn't at full strength over the last half of the match, and it was no coincidence that Stephens took control in this half. When Williams is at full-strength, she is the best player in the world. One simply has to hope that she has a lot of time left to play full strength in her already incredible career and that, when she is eventually done in, it is by a deep and exciting women's game that has caught her, not by a body that betrayed her.