In one of the most stunning upsets in the past decade, American teenager Sloane Stephens shocked tournament favorite Serena Williams 3-6 7-5 6-4 to charge into the semifinals of Australian Open.
Even though five-time Australian Open champion Williams aggravated a back injury in the second set that clearly affected her at the end of that set and at the beginning of the third set, she did regain much of her power at the end of the third set, but it didn't matter, as Stephens played more ambitiously and executed when she had too.
Stephens out-hit Williams from her forehand side, kept moving forward and won key points at the net, and even after she was broken to 3-4 when Williams retrieved one of her cannon shots, she didn't fold. She continued to press Williams and moved her around from the backcourt and broke back to 4-4, when the 15-time Grand Slam champion committed two unforced errors.
Stephens, who had pressed her Fed Cup teammate in a straight-sets loss in Brisbane three weeks ago, had said before the match that she wasn't intimidated and she would bring everything she had to the court.
And that she did the next game. Serena – who had destroyed a racquet earlier in the set because she couldn’t find the rhythm that had won her 20 straight matches coming into the contest – held a break point, but netted a backhand return.
“You're playing Serena, one of the best competitors in the world,” Stephens said. “She might smash a racquet, but she's still going to play hard. It was definitely like, ‘Wow, that just happened’. But it was more like, ‘OK, now you even have to play harder because she's going to be firing’.”
Stephens eventually held when she whipped a forehand pass and Williams committed a forehand error.
The daughter of a now deceased American football star, the speedy Stephens knew she would have a great chance to close in the next game and did, playing like a grizzled veteran rather than a rookie in her first Grand Slam quarterfinal appearance.
She played steady, while Serena – clearly affected by seeing a youngster matching her stroke for stroke – fell apart, and committed three unforced errors to lose the match.
Stephens, who has a poster of Serena at her Los Angeles home and just last year at the Australian Open described Williams as her “tennis god,” said with a smile on her face: “I think I need a poster of myself.
Here mental, technical and physical improvements have been substantial since then which she chalks up to more than two months of hard work during the offseason.
“I definitely improved a lot,” said Stephens who converted 18 of her 20 net approaches. “Definitely last year it was all new to me and it was just kind of a new experience. It was the first time [playing her in Brisbane], so it was tough. But the first time you do anything it's tricky. I think I was kind of just ready to play.”
Within a two hour and 13 minute time span, she became an instant celebrity. Her mobile phone had over 200 incoming messages. Her twitter followers more than doubled from 17,000 followers to more than 35,000.
“[Singer] John Legend tweeted me. [Basketball star] Dirk Nowitski tweeted me. I'm just excited. I want John Legend to sing at my wedding. I was like, ‘Oh, my God. He tweeted me’.”
Stephens will play top seed and defending champion Victoria Azarenka in the semifinal.