Sloane Stephens acquitted herself well in a 6-4, 6-3 loss to Serena Williams in the Brisbane International quarterfinals Thursday. Stephens, 19, came out guns blazing, up to the challenge of playing her friend and idol. Her explosive movement was exceptional as she covered the court from left to right and repeatedly sent near-winners back with interest, forcing Williams to hit that extra ball. And that extra ball. And that extra ball.
Williams' frustration mounted as the match went on. She was unable to get a sniff on Stephens' serve. In fact, Stephens repeatedly found herself 0-30 on Williams' serve, only for Williams to buckle down and ace her way out of it. Stephens' pressure clearly had an effect. As early as 3-3 in the first set, Williams was urging herself on, screaming "Come on!" and berating herself for errors.
In the end Williams only needed one break point, which happened to be a set point, which she converted to take the first set 6-4. After a lengthy discussion with
her coach, David Nainkin USTA coach Troy Han, Stephens joked about Williams' "come ons," saying they were "a little disrespectful."
Much has been made over whether Stephens was earnest in her critique. Personally, having been at press conferences and interviews with Stephens, I just don't buy into any argument that she was taking a dig at Williams in any meaningful way. The comment came at the end of a coaching timeout. Stephens said it was a joke meant to alleviate her disappointment and frustration from losing the set. As reported by Tennis.com, Stephens said it was just a bit of "friendly fire" amongst friends.
“That’s something that him and I joke about a lot,” Stephens said. “It was kind of just to ease the tension a little bit. I mean, I don’t know what I looked like on the court, but I felt like I looked like a sour lemon, so I was like, Ah, I need to relax. No, it was just a joke. All fun.”
One of the most refreshing things about Stephens has been her irreverence when it comes to discussing her own career -- of which she can be scathingly self-deprecating -- and when discussing others. Tennis fans and pundits yearn for a player as open and witty yet are just as willing to criticize them for their honesty, or in this case, their sarcasm. Let's take a moment to fight the backlash. What matters most is that Stephens played a tremendous match that showed her potential and got us excited about the future of American tennis. Let that be the legacy of the night.
(h/t to The Changeover for capturing the video).