On Sunday afternoon in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens—the top two American women—will meet in the fourth round of the U.S. Open.
In January, Stephens—just 19 at the time—shocked the world when she upset Serena in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Writers everywhere hailed it as the "changing of the guard."
And now, eight months later, they meet again.
American tennis fans and media alike are always in search for the"next big thing." In January, everyone was sure they had found it in Stephens.
Though she hasn't completely gone away since her breakthrough in Australia—she made the fourth round of the French Open and the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and took out Maria Sharapova in Cincinnati—she's far from being a consistent threat at the top of the game.
Meanwhile, since January, Serena has gone on to reclaim the No. 1 spot from Victoria Azarenka and run away with it, capturing the French Open and seven other titles in one of the most prolific and consistent years of her legendary career.
As it turns out, the guard hasn't budged a bit.
Now, in order to win her second Grand Slam of the year, she's first going to have to get some revenge on Stephens.
Since the draw came out last week, it's the match that everyone has been waiting for.
"I think it will be a good match. I think she's playing really well. I'll have a really tough match. 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," Serena told myself and reporters at 1:30 a.m. after her late-night third-round win over Yaroslava Shvedova. "She really has nothing to lose and she excels in situations like that."
Those are odd words coming from Serena, who is undoubtedly the favorite in every match she plays. However, it makes sense when you look a little further into their relationship that she might be putting some of the pressure back on Stephens' shoulders.
Before their Australian Open match, the media went overboard describing the relationship between Serena and Stephens as "mentor-mentee." Though both women did fuel the fire in their own way, it was clear that a lot of the narrative was manufactured.
After the big upset, everything between them changed. Stephens, still young and naive about the intents of the media, spilled private details of their relationship to Marin Cogan, who was profiling the rising star for ESPN The Magazine.
But then Sloane beat Serena in Australia. "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 says emphatically. "And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter."
Her mom tries to slow her down, but Sloane is insistent. "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?"
Then there was the alleged subtweet -- a cryptic message posted to Serena's Twitter feed two days after their January match and addressed to no one in particular that said, "I made you." Stephens was sure it was about her, and so were a few of Williams' followers who tweeted back at Serena about "that lil girl" who beat her. "I was like, 'You really don't think I know that that's about me?'" Stephens says.
Serena took the high road, refusing to fan the flames when asked about Stephens' comments at the Madrid Open in May. According to Chris Chase of USA Today, she said:
Yeah, I think a lot of people are aware. I don’t really know. I don’t have many thoughts. I’m a big Sloane Stephens fan and always have been. I’ve always said that I think she can be the best in the world. I’ll always continue to think that and always be rooting for her. So I really just always wish her — and anyone, really, especially from America — the best. We don’t have that many American players, so it’s always exciting to see so many young players doing so well.
Since the controversy broke in May, both Serena and Stephens have said that they worked things out privately, and there has been very little drama. Serena even called Stephens a "favorite" for the Wimbledon title after her early exit.
As they were grilled by the press about their relationship leading into their fourth-round encounter at the U.S. Open, both women clung to polite platitudes.
"Obviously we're coworkers, we're Fed Cup teammates. But other than that, everything else is private. It's fine," Stephens said about Serena, per USOpen.org. "[I] love her. She's a great competitor, one of the best players to ever play the game."
"I think, yeah, we're teammates," Serena told the U.S. Open's official website. "I mean, I've always really liked Sloane. I have a lot of respect for Sloane. I think she's a great girl. I think she's great for tennis, as well."
Whether they admit it or not, there's a lot on the line for both women on Sunday. And no matter what Serena says, she is definitely the favorite going into their match on Sunday.
While Stephens played well at the Australian Open, Serena was dealing with an injured ankle during that match. Now, she's healthy and playing some of the best tennis of her career. Of course, so is Stephens.
"I think it will be epic," Stephens said. "I'm really looking forward to it."
So are we, Sloane. So are we.
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