NEW YORK—Not yet. Sloane Stephens is coming fast, nearly as fast as the forehand rockets she can deliver on the dead run, but her day has not yet arrived. Serena Williams delivered that message loud and clear on Sunday afternoon under a cloudy sky at Arthur Ashe Stadium. There will not be a changing of the one-word guard from Serena to Sloane at this year's U.S. Open. Maybe that comes next year. What is true today will be true later this week: Serena Williams is the Queen of the courts in Flushing Meadows.
In a matchup of the oldest and youngest player left in the women's tournament, top-seeded Williams defeated No. 15 Stephens 6-4, 6-1 in front of a lively stadium crowd curious about the current and future of U.S. women's tennis. Much of the first set was thrilling theater, power tennis at its very best. As always, like a trusted friend, Serena's serve aided her from the first ball. She won 26 of 31 first serve points (84 percent) and 46 percent of her serves went unreturned.
The players split the opening four games, though Stephens had to fight off several break chances from Williams including a fourth game that saw six deuce points before Stephens finally held. Williams clearly had her game face on from the first ball toss. "It is a sign of respect Serena is taking this match so seriously," noted CBS analyst Mary Carillo.
She had no other choice.
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Stephens, 20, hits a massive forehand, a solid two-handed backhand and covers the court exceptionally well. She played even with Serena for the first five games before Williams broke her at 2-3 of the opening set. But Stephens has shown an affinity for the occasion, rising for the pressure-filled matches where others her age show nerves. Trailing 2-4 she immediately broke back, though clearly helped by Williams, who served back to back double faults. It was the first time Serena had been broken at this year's Open.
At 4-4, Williams steadied her nerves to win an easy service game. Now Stephens needed to hold her serve to stay in the set. It was here where the match went awry for the younger player. Williams won eight of the next nine games including a tense final game of the first set. Serving at 4-5, Stephens could not close out two game points, including spraying a makeable winner wide on her second game point. When Stephens hit a forehand wide, Williams had captured the opening set in 52 minutes. You sensed what was coming next: Serena is 216-5 at Grand Slams when winning the first set.
"The quality of the tennis was great," said Williams, who improved to 64-4 in 2013 and has dropped just 13 games en route to the quarterfinals where she will face No. 18 Carla Suarez Navarro. "At the end of the day it was a fourth round match, but it definitely had the feeling more of a quarterfinal or a semifinal match."
This was the latest two American women had met this deep at a U.S. Open since Serena defeated Venus Williams in a quarterfinal match at the 2008 U.S. Open. But any hopes of a third set were extinguished quickly. Stephens had a break point in the opening game of the final set but Serena hit a forehand winner to send it back to deuce. The match effectively ended when Williams broke Stephens in the fourth game. After it was over, the two players met at the net, where Williams said she told Stephens, "Good job" at match end. The younger player was off the court less than 120 seconds after she netted a final forehand.
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"There were times I played some really good tennis," Stephens said. "Second set got away from me a little bit, but overall I thought I played great. I thought she did a lot of things really well. Like I said, she's No. 1 in the world for a reason. All in all, I thought she played great."
Williams, who turns 32 on Sept. 26, was ebullient after the win. She fist-pumped her box and signed autographs for a long period of time before leaving the stadium. Williams downplayed the importance of beating Stephens after the match but it was clear to anyone how much she wanted this victory.
This was only the third career meeting between the players. The other matches came in January, both on hard courts, both in the quarterfinals. Williams won 6-4, 6-3 at the Brisbane International. Three weeks later, Stephens came back for a memorable 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory at the Australian Open. The matchup would be fascinating on tennis alone but the backstory entering this tussle added to the tension. To recap (briefly): Stephens criticized Williams in an ESPN The Magazine story last May for an alleged freeze-out after the Australian Open match. (The ultimate 2.0 insult: Williams stopped following Stephens on Twitter).
"We're not besties," Stephens said, in an interview with TIME Magazine. "I would never message her, 'Oh, let's go to dinner,' anything like that."
The two players spoke at the Madrid Open and allegedly made up. (Said Stephens at the time: "We moved on. We're past it. I think we're OK."). If nothing else, both went to humorous extremes this week to offer praise for each. Prior to the tournament, Williams referred to Stephens as "an inspiration" and where Serena once referred to Stephens as "my opponent" and called her a "good player," Williams upped the love last Friday. "Whenever I see her, we talk," Wiliams said. "For me she's a great girl. She's good for tennis as well."
Stephens also kept up with the program, though with a touch less hype. "We're coworkers, we're Fed Cup teammates," Stephens said. "But other than that, everything else is private. It's fine."
Fellow American Jamie Hampton probably had the best response. Asked what she thought of the Stephens-Williams rivalry, Hampton delivered a forehand to the media. "Not as much as you guys," she said.
She's clearly right, but this is the entertainment business and rivalries sell. Along those lines, Stephens was asked if she wished she could be on the opposite side of the draw from Williams in a major. "It's tough, but everyone has their time to shine," she said. "I think she's obviously No. 1 in the world for a reason. She's earned every opportunity she's gotten. I think she makes the most out of every time she's on the court. Maybe one day when she's not playing, people would be, 'Maybe I wish I wasn't on the same side as Sloane.' Things happen in their time."
Time is on her side. Stephens is the youngest player in the top 20 and has reached the round of 16 at every Grand Slam event this year, one of only three players to do that in 2013 along with Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska. She does not have many points to defend and will likely end in the top 10 by the year's end. (She will leave the Open ranked in the top 15 and no higher than No. 12.) Stephens told reporters late on Sunday that she would watch this match again after the conclusion of the year. What she will find is a young player not too far away from challenging Williams. Her time is surely coming, but Serena's time is now.