As Sloane Stephens has said numerous times, Serena Williams is No. 1 for a reason.
In a battle of America's No. 1 and No. 2, Williams got the revenge she sought Sunday. Williams defeated Stephens 6-4, 6-1 in their highly anticipated fourth-round clash at the U.S. Open. Stephens, 20, was bidding to become just the fourth woman to knock off Williams, 31, in back-to-back Grand Slams meetings, having beaten her at the Australian Open in January.
But in just their third career match, Williams played nearly flawlessly in overpowering and outdefending her younger opponent. Williams hit 22 winners to just 13 unforced errors, while Stephens hit 15 winners to 29 unforced errors. The match was a tense affair, given their off-court history, and Serena's look of relief at match point spoke volumes.
"There were times I played some really good tennis," Stephens said. "I thought I played pretty solid. The second set got away from me a little bit, but overall I thought I played great."
Williams will face Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro, who eliminated No. 8 Angelique Kerber, in the quarterfinals. Asked about a potential letdown after a much-hyped match against Stephens, Williams said, "Absolutely not. I've been at this for a long time, so for me in my career, there are no letdowns."
Game-by-game analysis of Serena's win after the jump.
5:51 pm. ET | Serena Wiliams defeats Sloane Stephens 6-4, 6-1.
She needed three match points, but Serena finally crosses the finish line. The first set took 52 minutes. The second took 35 minutes. Stephens seemed to either run out of ideas or just let the frustration take over. But that's full credit to Serena, who played a smart, clean match. Aside from Williams' weird set of back-to-back double faults in the first set to hand back a break, this was dominance from start to finish.
As for Stephens, once again she shows she can hang with Serena in the rallies. Serena had to work very hard on defense today and that tells you how good Stephens can be when she's focused with a game plan. But Serena will always have the edge in this matchup for the same reason she has the advantage on nearly every opponent: She's simply a better server and Sloane was under pressure in every service game.
5:44 pm. ET | Serena breaks again, leads *5-1.
Well, this is entirely understandable but disappointing. Stephens has lost all conviction in her swings and the errors are coming. Serena breaks again on a horribly mishit backhand from Stephens and she'll serve for a spot in the quarterfinals.
5:36 pm. ET | Serena breaks and holds, leads *4-1.
This one might be over. Stephens puts her 25th unforced error, a forehand, into the net and Serena breaks for a 3-1 lead and then consolidates easily.
5:27 pm. ET | Serena holds, leads 2-1*.
Now it's Serena's turn to get stuck in a long service game. Even though she's racking up the errors, Sloane continues to stick to her game plan of hitting big. She earns a break point but can't convert. And then Sloane turns in a service game that actually doesn't involve a deuce point. This is different.
Oh, no, it's not. Serena with a love hold to 2-1.
Here's an ESPN promo video on Serena narrated by Kelly Rowland:
5:12 pm. ET | Serena wins the first set 6-4.
Another long deuce game on the Sloane serve and she steps up to save two set points. This is courageous stuff from the 20-year-old. Serena keeps trying to bully Sloane off the court and Sloane simply won't let her. But Serena is relentless and she finally breaks through on her third set point when Sloane pulls the trigger too early in the rally, goes for a forehand winner and misses it wide. That's Sloane's 21st unforced error of the set.
First set to Serena after 52 minutes. This has been a good, tense affair. Worthy of the hype.
There are front-runners, and then there's Serena. That's an incredible stat from the WTA's Kevin Fischer.
5:01 pm. ET | Serena holds, leads 5-4*.
Sloane is grinding out holds. Serena gets to deuce again and Sloane bails herself out of it with some big hitting both on her forehand and serve.
Serena follows with a hold at 15. Getting to crunch time.
So far, the stats reflect Sloane's aggression. If you take the serving stats out of it, she's keeping pace with Serena on the winner count, with both hitting eight off the ground. But it's a riskier gambit for Sloane and the error counts reflect that. She's hit 12 unforced errors off the ground while Serena has hit six.
4:56 pm. ET | Sloane breaks, trails *3-4.
Serena gets the break. She earns two break points when Sloane is slow to react to a short ball and nets the forehand volley. Serena converts with a big forehand return winner and yells "Come on!" with a big fist pump.
But in an unexpected twist, Serena throws in back-to-back double faults to give the break right back. Did not see that coming.
It really has been, and that's no real surprise. In their two career meetings, Stephens has played well against Serena, both in her 6-4, 6-3 loss in Brisbane and in her three-set win at the Australian Open. It's what makes their budding rivalry exciting.
4:42 pm. ET | Serena holds, leads 3-2*.
These two are really taking it to each other. Serena earns her first break point by absolutely crushing a ball that Stephens lands short, grunting through the shot to good effect. But Sloane coolly saves it by ripping a short forehand down the line for a winner. Then she saves another break point by cracking a 102 mph inside-out forehand winner. Stephens isn't the biggest player, but her power comes so easily.
This nine-minute game is basically Sloane in a nutshell. She uses that easy power to pop a 119 mph ace to get to game point, but then she double-faults. Another double fault later in the game gives Serena her third break point, which Stephens saves with yet another big serve. Just 20, Stephens' biggest problem is consistency. Despite giving Serena three break point chances, Sloane holds.
Serena responds with yet another love hold.
4:28 pm. ET | Serena holds, 2-1.
Serena starts with an ace and holds at love. The wind is swirling a bit on Ashe, as it can do, so it'll be interesting to see how that affects the players, if at all. Sloane follows it up with a hold of her own, though she made it difficult for herself. Up 40-15, Stephens double-faults and then hits an off-balance backhand that lands in the net. But two good long rallies go in Stephens' favor. She's handling Serena's pace off the ground very well.
Serena responds with another easy hold. The only point Sloane has won on Serena's serve so far is via a double fault. But it's great to see her come out of the blocks well. The worst thing that she could do would be to fall into a 0-3 hole immediately.
4:18 pm. ET | Warm-up
After a perfunctory pre-match interview with Mary Joe Fernandez, Serena and Sloane take to the court on a heavy, humid day. It's overcast and there's rain in the forecast. Andy Murray, who won his third-round match in straight sets just before this match, said the conditions were incredibly tough.
So is this going to be a competitive match or Beatdown City? One man who knows a little bit about what it's like to be fed Serena's famous Revenge Sandwich is Mike Joyce, who coached Maria Sharapova's for six-and-a half years. Sharapova beat Serena as a 17-year-old in the Wimbledon final in 2004 and was able to get one more win that year. Sharapova hasn't won a single one of their meetings since, a nine-year, 13-match drought.
So what do you think is going to happen today, Mike?
Serena's wearing a blazer as she warms up. All business.
The mind games have already begun. As CBS analyst Mary Carillo points out, these two were late arriving on court and they're both taking their time after the warm-up, almost daring each other to be the first to walk out on court. Serena wins that war. Stephens finally gets up from her chair to go the baseline and Serena makes her stand there and wait some more before finally getting up.
Serena won the toss and will serve.
Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens will meet in the fourth round of the U.S. Open on Sunday. The All-American clash on Arthur Ashe Stadium will follow the men's third-round match between Andy Murray and Florian Mayer, which ended at 3:45 p.m.
This marks the first meeting between Williams, 31, and Stephens, 20, since Stephens upset Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in January. The two have generated plenty of headlines since, though. In a March interview with ESPN The Magazine, Stephens questioned Williams’ authenticity and dispelled the idea that the two were close.
“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 said. “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. 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 spoke with Williams to clear the air and said everything was good between the two. But after that meeting, Stephens was quoted by TIME magazine as saying that Williams uses mind games to intimidate opponents.
Williams, meanwhile, has praised Stephens repeatedly during the U.S. Open, saying it's "an honor to watch" such a "smooth player" who is "such an inspiration to a lot of people." The top-ranked Williams, a 16-time Grand Slam champion, also said of her match against Stephens, who has never made a WTA final, "I definitely don’t feel like I’m going in there as a favorite, because she’s playing great, even though I’m playing good, too."