Our Game 2: Sloane Stephens Has Been Here Before

Sloane Stephens has dipped her painted toe nail into the waters of tennis history before. The Plantation, Fla.-born teenager plastered her room with Williams Sisters posters as a child, picked up a tennis racket at age 9 and in ’07 started backhanding through the International Tennis Federation Circuit and up the WTA rankings.

In a storybook twist, Stephens emerged to smash her tennis idol Serena at the Australian Open quarterfinals in January of 2013, becoming the only American younger than Serena to ever beat the 15-time major winner and five-time Australian Open champion.

At the time, it seemed like a natural changing of the guard, as The Williams Sisters remain the long-standing chocolate darlings of tennis and torch bearers for future American stars of the sport. In tennis there is no divine right theory. Kings and Queens don’t rule the clay courts forever. It was all set up for Sloane Stephens, another brown-skinned cutie, to grab that torch and march right to her first major title.

In 2013, tennis was  feenin’ like Jodeci for its next superstar, and Stephens was the 19-year-old fresh-face phenom. Stephens ousted Serena but didn’t win the tournament and all of the emails, texts, social media love and hype only lasted a New York minute. Her Twitter followers rocketed from 17,000 to almost 50,000 and her WTA ranking shot to a career-high (at the time) of No. 29. 

Despite her loss to Victoria Azarenka in the next round, Stephens went on to perform consistently at all four slams that season; she lost to the eventual champion on each occasion. Finishing 2013 at a career high ranking of No. 12, the 21 year-old even made it to the WTA Championships in Istanbul, as a second alternate. Adding drama to the tale, the young grasshopper and chiseled O.G. even had a little beef going which would have surely heightened future battles and made for historical television if Stephens kept up her end of the deal. Tennis would be turned up. Two neck-rolling, finger-snapping sisters going at it tourney-for-tourney, set-for-set with swag, skill and cultural substance. 

Instead, Stephens’ play declined in 2014, despite some strong showings in major tournaments and her social image was suffering as she caught considerable flak for ripping Williams in an ESPN The Magazine article for her lack of friendliness towards her including deleting the young tennis star from Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger. Stephens also told The Magazines Maria Cogan she didnt appreciated a tweet Williams posted in January of 2013, a subliminal reference to the respect Stephens owed her for paving the way.

Stephens later recanted the statement and tweeted that she was Guilty of being naive. Much respect for @serenawilliams, a champ & the GOAT. We spoke, were good. ONWARD! #lifelessons.

Stephens is still learning those life lessons she tweeted about nearly two and a half years later. It’s hard to ascend to tennis royalty and match the accomplishments of the bad-ass Compton sisters — whose resilience, social contributions, athleticism and mental toughness is unrivaled in their era — with one major victory. While, Stephens is still a worthy contender and considered an up-and-coming star, her run at The Williams Sisters’ supremacy never really took off, and Stephens entered the first-round of  this year’s French Open ranked 40th in the world and preparing to face another Williams Sister.  

It was like deja vu. Or maybe just a do-over. We do get those sometimes. 

For the second time in three years, Venus Williams lost in the first round at the French Open. Venus, who was beaten by younger sister Serena in the 2002 final, lost 7-6 (5), 6-1 to Stephens, now a 22-year-old. Stephens has made it to the fourth round in Paris each of the past three years and defeating Venus, who at 34 was the oldest player in the draw, has once again sparked some excitement about the possibilities of American women’s tennis and life after The Williams Sisters, who have been the breathing tank of American tennis for two decades. 

In todays society, we mass produce overnight celebrities, but becoming iconic takes time. Stephens’ timely performance in 2013 against tennis G.O.A.T., built on her fourth-round Australian Open L in 12 and continued the athletic legacy of her mom Sybil, an All-American swimmer at Boston University and 88 Olympics qualifier, and her father John Stephens, a former NFL running back for the New England Patriots, who died in a car crash in 09. Her first-round French Open victory over Venus is another step in the process. 

The Williams Sisters changed the complexion of tennis and expanded the sports popularity from the ritzy private clubs of London to America’s toughest urban cities. Their journey enhanced the efforts of pioneers Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, whose careers inspired young people of color — girls in particular — to play tennis. Other players have had media appeal, but the enormous fan base and social platform Venus and Serena enjoy originated from straight crushing cats on the tennis courts.

Maybe Stephens was too young at the time, to build on the momentum she gained from beating Serena. Maybe that was merely a glimpse into her future. A future that required more prime time development. With a rare sweep of Serena and Venus under her racket, fans will expect this win to be the rocket-launching one for Stephens, who is still seeking her first major. The Williams Sisters are in the twilight of their careers. It’s not absurd to wonder just how long Serena can continue to dominate and be a major player, but despite myriad injuries and age, she continues to gut out victories over younger opponents. Even after that supposed “changing of the guard” loss to Stephens, Serena rebounded to blaze back to the top of the tennis game. In fact, Stephens and Serena met earlier this month and Serena needed just 58 minutes to win 6-4, 6-0 to reach the third round of the Madrid Open in Spain.

That’s why just beating another Williams Sister isn’t enough this time. Stephens has to win The French Open. The next generation of tennis stars needs Stephens to be the real deal. Venus is playing less and less. Serena is a beast, but her body is breaking down. As they fade from the scene, so does their visible inspiration.

Stephens has a chance to save tennis from the type of drought golf suffers when Tiger isnt teeing up. She now has two signature victories, the skills and a mental gullyness about her. It will be interesting to see if this win was another internet rope-a-dope of high hopes or a symbolic deactivation of the second Wonder Twin and the official beginning of a new era in tennis. 

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