At 19, Sloane Stephens’ 15 minutes of fame began when her idol, the incomparable Serena Williams, hit a backhand into the net late Tuesday night, the final point for Stephens in a monumental victory that not only thrust her into the Australian Open semifinals, but also into international prominence.
Sloane Stephens has arrived. Whether her 15 minutes extends to 15 years depends on her remaining as poised as she was against Williams and hitting the solid ground strokes and cunning drop shots that wrought her the most significant win of her young career.
But her 3-6 7-5 6-4 win over Williams, setting up a match tonight against No. 1 seed Victoria Azarenka, put Stephens on the tennis map.
And she expressed this new place with the typical exhilaration of a teenager. “This is so crazy,” she said. “Oh my goodness.”
She wiped away tears. “I think I’ll put a poster of myself (up) now.”
She will not be the only one doing so. For the young African-American to defeat one of the two players she admired (Serena’s sister Venus being the other) center stage at the Australian Open for a spot in the semis … well, that’s heady stuff.
Stephens said her Twitter followers grew from from 17,000 to 35,000 in the time it took for her to defeat Williams and get to the post-match press conference. She said R&B star John Legend sent her a Twitter message. And she flashed a smile that was as wide as the continent.
Stephens comes from prime athletic stock. Her father, the late John Stephens, was a running back for the NFL’s New England Patriots who died in a car accident in 2009. Her mother, Sybil Smith, is considered the greatest swimmer in Boston University history and became the first black woman in NCAA history to be named a “first team All America” in swimming.
Tuesday night, Stephens not only had to overcome Williams (despite back spasms), the moment and facing her idol. She had a photo of Williams in her room when she was a child, and had long admired the Williams sisters.
When she awoke the morning of the match, Stephens began to feel she could win. “I was like, ‘Look, dude, like, you can do this.’ Like, ‘Go out and play and do your best,’ ” she said.
And her best just might be yet to come.