Regardless of who wins the Australian Open, the story of the tournament was made in the women's quarterfinals when Sloane Stephens upset Serena Williams with a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory that derails Serena's chances at another Grand Slam title and the No. 1 ranking.
Williams will clearly be devastated by this result, and even though Williams was wounded in the second set with back spasms, she expected to win the match, especially when she went up a break in the third set. However, it was just not meant to be.
The major question now becomes, was this a changing-of-the-guard moment for both American and African-American tennis? Or will Stephens, who may be a top-five player by the end of the year, succumb to the Maria Sharapova Curse?
Sharapova, as you recall shocked the world in 2004 by dominating Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final as a 17-year-old. Sharapova also went on to defeat an injured Williams in the finals of the Tour Championships that year as well. Tennis fans know the rest of this story. Williams has not lost to Sharapova since, no doubt fueled by the pain that she felt at Wimbledon in 2004.
Williams' three victories over Sharapova last year were especially brutal, which begs the question: Will Sloane Stephens suffer the same fate in which Serena will just make it her mission to beat Stephens convincingly every time that they play?
One thing I can say for sure is that the friendship between Stephens and Williams will be put on hold at least until after Williams retires. This was going to happen eventually. Williams has already said that she has no interest in mentoring Stephens, and Stephens has already said that she doesn't see Serena as her hero anymore.
You can also look at their match in Brisbane, when Stephens felt Williams disrespected her, as a sign that she won't back down against Williams. This victory was the clearing of a huge mental hurdle for Stephens, who will now see Williams as just another player, and a beatable won at that.
On the court, Stephens has the game to give Williams problems. Stephens has the speed and power to consistently challenge Williams and be a threat to win all of their matches. Stephens' forehand, in particular, is a beauty. Once Stephens improves her serve, you'll be able to make a case that her game will be equal to Serena's.
Serena will no doubt have a chip on her shoulder whenever she plays Stephens, but Stephens has the mobility that Sharapova does not have to be able to chase down Williams' rockets. Stephens may have the game to beat Serena consistently.
Now that Stephens is on Williams' hit list, will she suffer the same fate as Sharapova? It is hard to say, especially with Serena getting toward the end of her career, which means they will have fewer matches, but I think that we can all agree that the next time these two face off, they will both be members of the top 10 and that Serena will see Stephens not as the future, but the present; a clear threat to Serena's mission to win more Slams, to become the undisputed Greatest of All Time.
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