Can Sloane Stephens officially take the torch from The Williams Sisters?
The Williams sisters remain the long-standing chocolate darlings of tennis and torch bearers for future stars of the sport, but it was all set up for Sloane Stephens, another brown-skinned cutie, to grab that torch and march right to her first major title.
Tennis is fiending for its next superstar, and Stephens is a 19-year-old fresh face from a new place.
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 Wednesday, becoming the only American younger than Serena to ever beat the 15-time major winner and five-time Australian Open champion.
Stephens’ first taste of victory is old hat for these bad-ass Compton sisters, whose resilience, social contributions, athleticism and mental toughness is unrivaled in their era. For 30-year–old tennis ambassadors with marathon-runner mileage, the Williams’ still get busy. But twilight time is near, and the fans desire to see a new superstar may have blown the impact of the match out of proportion.
The match could have been interpreted in two ways. Some saw it as the new heavyweight contender, a younger, healthier and less battle-worn warrior, besting the champ and signaling a new era. Others see it as a younger player benefitting from injuries to a compromised champion.
Either way, the perfect story-book ending would have been for Stephens to wash the tournament’s No. 1 Stunna, Victoria Azarenka in last night’s semifinal, rip through the finals in a five-set thriller and establish herself as the next immovable force in women’s tennis.
But first, slow your roll.
The emotions, media monsoon and expectations seemed to sink the sizzle Sloane had in ousting Serena. The athleticism, quickness and power she displayed in her previous match dwindled with her serve speed during her 6-1, 6-4 semifinals loss.
While Stephen’s Australian Open landing wasn’t perfect, her infectious smile and tennis steez has already created a firestorm of support that even losing can’t extinguish.
Her funky, quarterfinal W generated more articles and twitter trending than the birth of Blue Ivy Carter. Fashion mags are digging her style, she received 145 text messages after the win, her followers rocketed from 17,000 to almost 50,000 and her WTA ranking shot to a career-high of No. 29.
In today’s society, we mass produce overnight celebrities, but becoming iconic takes time. Stephen’s timely performance against tennis’ G.O.A.T., builds on her fourth-round L in ’12 and continues 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.
The Williams sisters changed the complexion of tennis, tripled the sport’s popularity from the ritzy private clubs of London to the streets of the toughest American urban cities, and built on Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe’s progress inspiring young people of color — girls in particular — to play tennis.
Other players have had media appeal, but the massive fan base and social platform Venus and Serena enjoy originated from straight crushing cats on the tennis courts.
That’s why the next generation of tennis stars needs Stephens to be the real deal. Venus is playing less and less and is fading out of the Top 25. Serena is still ranked third, but her body is breaking down. As they fade from the scene, so does their visible inspiration.
Stephens has a chance to continue building and save tennis from the type of drought golf suffers when Tiger isn’t teeing up. She has the signature victory, the skills and a mental gulliness about her. She’s moved out west to Bel Air, so her Hollywood swag is on point. Now let’s see if she can be a game-changer, or if she’ll be another solid women’s player (Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil) — who smoked greatness, but never got to inhale it.