INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens will renew their complicated rivalry in a fourth round clash at the BNP Paribas Open on Tuesday. Williams leads the head-to-head 2-1 but this will be their first meeting since 2013. The one win for Stephens was a big one—it came in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open that year and launched Stephens as a star.
But things turned sour for Stephens after that run to the semifinals in Melbourne. In an interview published in May that year, Stephens said Williams had completely iced her after the loss. From ESPN The Magazine:
She's not said one word to me, not spoken to me, not said hi, not looked my way, not been in the same room with me since I played her in Australia," Stephens says emphatically. "And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter."
Her mom tries to slow her down, but Sloane is insistent. "Like, seriously! People should know. They think she's so friendly and she's so this and she's so that—no, that's not reality! You don't unfollow someone on Twitter, delete them off of BlackBerry Messenger. I mean, what for? Why?"
Stephens claimed afterwards that she thought the comments were off the record and she spoke to Serena afterwards to mend their quarrel. Aside from the famous "I made you" tweet sent after that Australian Open loss, Serena has taken the high road and is often effusive in her praise.
“I’m a big Sloane Stephens fan and always have been,” Serena told reporters that year in Spain. “I’ve always said that I think she can be the best in the world. I’ll always continue to think that and always be rooting for her."
Since 2013 Stephens' career hasn't reached the heights of that big Australian Open run. She finished the season just outside the top ten at No. 12 but has since fallen outside of the Top 40. She has struggled with injuries and inconsistency but has remained a big-match player. After working with Paul Annacone in 2014, she teamed up with Nick Saviano in the off-season after Saviano parted ways with Eugenie Bouchard, the woman who supplanted her last year in the "Next Big Thing" sweepstakes.
Stephens came into Indian Wells under the radar. A wrist injury ended her 2014 season early and she was just 2-4 this year, failing to win back-to-back matches at four tournaments. She's also seen the spotlight shift slightly over to 20-year-old Madison Keys in the past few months.
But Stephens is now playing some of her best tennis in a year. Through three matches last week she has abandoned her passive stance on the court to step in and play aggressively. Her forehand has been solid and her footwork around the ball has been better. She shook off the rust to beat Chanelle Scheepers 7-5, 7-5 in the first round, followed it up with a 7-6 (6), 6-2 win over 13th seed Angelique Kerber and then battled to a 7-6 (4), 1-6, 6-4 win over Svetlana Kuznetsova on Sunday. As she prepares to take on Serena, Stephens has her game face on. Asked about her relationship with Serena now, Stephens described her as a "colleague."
"I felt like every match I played against her I have played well," Stephens said. "I mean, it's always an honor to play No. 1 player in the world. Obviously someone of her stature who has won so many titles and the great player she is, I just have to just go out there and play my game and do all I can and just compete."
For Serena, her easy win over 28th seed Zarina Diyas in the third round seemed to settle the nerves after her emotional return to the tournament on Friday night, which ended a 14-year boycott of the tournament. With a day off between matches to clear her head, Serena was much sharper against Diyas and won 6-2, 6-0.
"I have had some tough matches with Sloane," Serena said. "She's had an interesting year, but I have noticed that she's been really playing well. She moves well and she tries to do her best for everything. That would be an interesting, good matchup for me."