Sloane Stephens (l) after beating Serena Williams
Many had thought Sloane Stephens was a Serena Williams disciple who would wander on to Rod Laver Arena, bow her head, and usher her childhood idol into the semi-finals. But it was not to be.
The hugely dramatic match between the two on Wednesday ended in the biggest surprise of the tennis season to date. Struggling with back and ankle injuries as well as Stephens’s deft all-court game, Williams went down to only her second defeat since last year’s French Open.
Until Wednesday afternoon, 2013 was looking like the sporting year for Serena. She started this tournament as the odds-on favourite after romping through the Brisbane International. Physically, she looked intimidating and strong. Mentally, there are few who can live with her ferocity.
But perhaps there is a reason why no 31-year-old has ever stood at the top of the women’s rankings. Williams’ powerful body has betrayed her in Melbourne.
First she turned her right ankle in her opening match, and then yesterday her back locked up as she stretched to retrieve a drop shot.
“I think the ankle started everything up the chain because I’m compensating and maybe it made my back hurt,” Williams said on Wednesday.
“A few days ago it just got really tight and I had no rotation on it. I went for this drop shot in the second set and it just locked up on me. I even screamed on the court. It was a little painful.”
Some might argue that Williams was ungracious to make a big deal out of her injury. But this was no figment of the imagination. After her back went, the most powerful server the women’s game has seen was reduced to patting them in at 85mph, which is about the same speed you find on veterans’ night at the local club.
It happened at 3-4 in the second set, just as Stephens was beginning to make some headway with her crafty angles and athletic retrieving. A match that had promised to be routine when Williams won the first set 6-3 was already becoming increasingly sticky, and now the odds shifted dramatically.
Williams did manage to loosen up her back a little during a medical time-out, and her serve gradually cranked back up towards full pace. But her composure did not return.
Just like in her last grand slam defeat, against Virginie Razzano in Paris, she became distressed and erratic. There were tearful moments and reproachful mutterings as well as a particularly venomous racket smash, which would later earn her a $1,500 fine (£947).
The remarkable thing was that Stephens stayed so, well, serene. For a 19-year-old, her composure is exceptional.
There was a moment when she lost focus immediately after Williams suffered her injury, which was understandable.
But she regained it quickly and finished off a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory that she, for one, will never forget.
Interviewed on the court after the match, Stephens could not speak for several moments as she was overcome by emotion.
When she finally gathered herself, she was asked what she would do with the poster of Williams on her wall. “I think I’ll put up a poster of myself now.”
Thus ended all the recent predictions of a ‘Serena Slam’ (which would have required Williams to win both here and in Paris, and thus hold all four majors simultaneously). And thus, probably, ended her chance of climbing back to No 1 in the next set of rankings.
Even so, Williams claimed to be “almost relieved” that her Australian Open was over. Asked if this had been her worst fortnight at a grand slam tournament, she replied: “Absolutely. I’ve had a tough two weeks between the ankle, which is like this big every day, and my back, which started hurting.
“Oh my gosh, it’s been a little difficult.”