Rising star Stephens looks like she might be making a racket for quite a while to come
Her relationship with Williams is, on the available evidence, not cemented as full-blown friendship – and that is understandable from Serena’s point of view; she is not about to embrace a prodigy who, patently, is now a serious rival. Nevertheless, Williams betrayed a certain lack of grace in defeat, describing Stephens as “a good player”, and resisting the temptation to garland her day as it otherwise deserved.
They had contretemps of sorts in Brisbane, when Stephens complained to her coach that Serena’s “come ons” in mid-shot were “disrespectful”. Respect counts for a lot if none is freely granted, and Stephens has had to fight for any coming her way.
She was born in Plantation, Florida, to Stephens and Sybil Smith, a swimmer good enough to be recognised in an all-American selection, the first African-American to be so honoured. Stephens died in a car crash not long before the 2009 US Open, but Sloane decided to play.
She has been groomed as a potential shining light in the game for several years, having first held a racket, when she was nine. She came to notice first as a doubles player, but it was clear her all-round strength and speed were best suited to the lone skills of singles. In 2010, she reached the semi-finals of the junior tournament in Paris, then the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, but her concurrent achievements on the WTA tour were moderate, not surprisingly.
There followed the familiar round of wildcard entries and struggles through qualifying tournaments over the next couple of years, as she worked her way into the top 100. More people took notice at the French Open last year when she beat Ekaterina Makarova, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Mathilde Johansson to reach the fourth round. She got to the third round at Wimbledon.
Her arrival was confirmed, fittingly, at her home tournament. She beat French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in the first round, Tatjana Malek in the second and came close to upsetting 12th seed Ana Ivanovic in the third. This was the tournament when Robson beat Kim Clijsters and Li Na. The rivalry was born.
When she beat Robson here, the London teenager was reluctant to acknowledge that she and Stephens were now set on a long road together, two bright and some times brilliant young players vying for the place in the sun soon to be vacated by the likes of Serena Williams. Robson, like Williams, did not want to hand Stephens an edge – and that is a measure of respect rather than jealousy.
When Stephens, who came here as the 29th seed, took that giving of respect out of Serena’s hands last night, it was hard won. She wanted no favours, and needed none. She had made her own way. Whoever Sloane Stephens turns out to be as a tennis player, she is already an engaging, fascinating young woman, an antidote to cynicism in a sporting universe drowning in the stuff.