American sports fans who didn't know the name Sloane Stephens before last night surely do now. The rising tennis star knocked off fellow American and heavy favorite Serena Williams to reach the Australian Open semifinals, where she will face Victoria Azarenka.
Stephens is the daughter of former NFL running back John Stephens, who played for the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs from 1988 to 1993. After the Patriots drafted him with the 17th overall pick in 1988, he was named Offensive Rookie of the Year and made the Pro Bowl in his first season.
Sloane has been steadily working her way up the tennis rankings in recent years, but beating Williams takes her to a completely different level.
She has officially arrived.
In one of the most hyped matches of the tournament so far, Stephens dropped the opening set against the No. 3 seed and winner of the last two Grand Slam titles. She showed resilience, playing terrific defense against the relentless power being sent her way.
Then, she caught a break. Williams suffered a back injury (via NY Daily News) that caused her play in the second set to drop off. Her serves weren't as fast and her groundstrokes weren't as crisp. It's impossible to say what would of happened if the injury didn't occur, but Stephens took advantage.
The 19-year-old Florida native, who will crack the top 20 thanks to her tremendous run at Melbourne Park, proceeded to win the second set 7-5. And in the third, when it seemed like Williams' level of play began to improve again, Stephens stood tall and won it 6-4.
Not only does beating Williams allow her to make the first Grand Slam semifinal appearance of her career, but it should also provide the talented teenager with a gigantic boost of confidence.
She will need every bit of that talent, confidence and momentum against Azarenka. The top-seeded and defending Australian Open champion has dropped just one set—to American Jamie Hampton—en route to the semis.
The game plan will be similar for Stephens. She must be prepared to absorb Azarenka's power and use it on the counterattack. The amount of patience she has shown is rare for a young player, and maintaining it as the pressure continues to rise is crucial.
Her future is extremely bright regardless of the result, but she stands just two wins away from a major title. Stephens must seize the moment and see if she can finish the job.
She already cleared the first major hurdle, but the task won't get any easier against Azarenka.