How Much Should We Read Into Sloane Stephens' Win Over Venus Williams?
PARIS -- We've been waiting a long, long time for the next American player to grab the baton from the Williams sisters, speculating again and again over candidate after candidate, just like pundits on cable news three years ahead of an election.
And here we are in 2015, still waiting, still speculating. Serena and Venus will turn 34 and 35 this year, but they still entered the French Open as the highest-ranked Americans at Nos. 1 and 15.
So who now? Well, after she beat Venus 7-6 (5), 6-1 in their first-round French Open match Monday, rules, standards and protocol dictate we must bring up the name Sloane Stephens again.
Yeah, yeah. You've heard this before. There has been much (too much?) speculation about Stephens, primarily after she beat Serena in the quarterfinals of the 2013 Australian Open and rose as high as No. 11.
Stephens, 22, has done little since then, though. She still hasn't won a single tournament or even reached the final of a WTA event. She had been playing well in Grand Slams, but that ended last summer, when she lost in the first round at Wimbledon, the second round at the US Open and the first round at the Australian Open this year. Limited by a wrist injury last year, she tumbled to 41st in the rankings, behind not only the Williams sisters but also behind the Madisons (Keys, currently ranked just behind Venus at 16th, and Brengle).
Serena also has beaten Stephens twice this season, so she clearly still has a ways to go.
While Stephens has played Serena five times (1-4), this was her first real match against Venus. "I didn't know if she was going to boss me off the court or how that was going to go,'' Stephens said. "But I knew if I just stayed in there and played my game that it would be a good match."
As to what Venus thought of Stephens? Well, that's unknown. Venus declined to speak at the required postmatch news conference. That action subjects her to a possible fine by French Open officials. She did issue a two-paragraph statement in which she said: "She just played better than me today.''
The question, as always, is whether Stephens can continue to do so.
After her disappointing 2014 season, Stephens changed coaches over the winter, hiring Nick Saviano, who has focused on getting Stephens to enjoy the sport more.
"I think most importantly you've got to get out there and have fun,'' Stephens said. "You've got to love to compete, and for me I have to love to run every ball down and I have to want to be there and just really be like, 'This is everything right now.' I think for me in this moment, I feel really good about my tennis, and I feel really good about the place that I'm in. I'm happy.''
Williams came close to winning the first set, leading 5-4 and 3-1 in the tiebreaker. But Stephens held firm and clawed back to win. And then as Venus looked tired (she is the oldest player in the draw) Stephens breezed to victory in the second set, which took half as long as the first. Moving well, Stephens was particularly impressive during a great rally late in the second set, when she slid toward the net for a shot, then raced back to return a lob and later won the point.
Venus was the higher-ranked player, but it wasn't a stunning upset. Stephens has reached the fourth round at Roland Garros each of the past three years, while Williams hasn't reached the third round in five years. She was knocked out in the second round last year, the first round in 2013, the second round in 2012 and didn't play here in 2011.
By the way, the two had met before, though it was in a World Team Tennis match several years ago that even Stephens said was essentially meaningless. "I think she had just won Wimbledon or something, and she had just come off a plane or something, and I coincidentally happened to beat her. It meant nothing.''
But Monday meant something because it was in a Grand Slam. And now the question -- once again -- is how meaningful Stephens can make it.