Sloane Stephens (left) beat Serena Williams at the Australian Open in January. (AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK -- There's no way around it. It's the match everyone circled when the women's draw came out last week and it's the one everyone wants to talk about now. Well, everyone except the two women who will actually play it.
Asked to preview her fourth-round match against Serena Williams at the U.S. Open on Sunday, Sloane Stephens kept it simple.
"As I always say, I think it will be epic," the 20-year-old said after her third-round victory. "I'm really looking forward to it. See what happens."
Not surprisingly, Stephens was peppered with questions about the status of her relationship with Williams, which was strained after Stephens beat her in the Australian Open quarterfinals in January. In an ESPN The Magazine story published in May, Stephens railed against Williams for icing her out after their match in Melbourne.
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"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 told ESPN. “And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter.
"Like, seriously. People should know," Stephens continued. "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 later claimed that the conversation with a reporter was off the record. But a few weeks later another article came out, this one in TIME magazine, in which Stephens had another go at Williams, saying that the 16-time Grand Slam champion resorts to mind games to intimidate opponents.
The two have, at least publicly, tried to move forward.
"I think that's all old news now and we've moved on," Stephens said Friday. "We're fine, so I think that's all that matters."
They say they've straightened things out and their comments about one another are dripping with positivity and praise. How things are being handled privately is a different story and one neither will discuss.
Stephens says she wouldn't have done anything differently but took some tough lessons from the entire incident.
"Stay true to yourself, and that's all you can do," she said. "A lot of lessons learned. I don't regret anything and I'm happy where I'm at right now."
Their off-court baggage lends even more intrigue to what is already a highly anticipated match for actual tennis reasons. The two have split two meetings, both of which took place in Australia in January. Williams won their first one, 6-4, 6-3 in Brisbane, and Stephens got her two weeks later at the Australian Open, winning 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 to advance to her first major semifinal.
Williams, 31, brought an ankle injury into that match in Melbourne and then tweaked her back in the second set when she was in a winning position. This year, she comes into the match after a questionable scheduling decision had her taking the court after 11:30 p.m. on Friday night and then returning 16 hours later to play her doubles match.
"I think just being on the court with her, people obviously in their life wish they would be able to play against Serena Williams, and I've had the chance," Stephens said. "It was very important for me the first time to just even get out there and be like, OK, it's not as scary as I thought it would be. I think being able to have played her a couple times before, I'm excited to get back out there."