Rivalry Or Not, Serena Williams-Sloane Stephens Is Full Of Intrigue

Serena Williams has won her last three matches against Sloane Stephens, but Stephens has shown better form in Paris. Getty Images

PARIS -- Welcome back to the great Serena Williams-Sloane Stephens rivalry. Or, depending on how you look at it, the Serena-Sloane non-rivalry.

After Stephens beat Serena at the 2013 Australian Open, their relationship became rather strained, which is putting it mildly. There were angry tweets and blocking each other on social media, then Stephens blasted Serena in an interview with ESPN The Magazine a couple of months later, saying Williams hadn't said a single word to her since the match.

At the time, the media touted Stephens as the heir apparent to Williams, which definitely has not been the case. At least not yet. The 22-year-old Stephens has yet to even reach a final in any WTA tournament in her career, while her ranking has dropped from as high as 11 down to 40. Serena, meanwhile, has been ranked No. 1 pretty much the entire time since that loss to Stephens, while winning four Grand Slams, including the 2013 French Open. Serena also has won their past three meetings -- at the 2013 U.S. Open, as well as at Madrid and Indian Wells this year.

And those angry exchanges were pretty much two years ago. Asked this weekend to describe the current relationship between the only two remaining American women in the French Open, Williams said she didn't know how to describe it.

"I just feel like I have always said from day one, I always root for her and see another African-American doing well,'' the 33-year-old Williams said. "I think she's super cute, so I always root for her.''

She won't be rooting for Stephens on Monday, though. The two face each other in a fourth-round match. And though Serena clearly has the edge, it shouldn't be an easy victory. For one thing, Roland Garros is a great site for Stephens' game. Despite her struggles over the past year, she has reached the fourth round here four years in a row.

"I don't have the formula for it. I just know that I love clay,'' Stephens said. "I love playing here. I've always played well here, even in the juniors. For me, Roland Garros works.''

"She has a great game,'' Williams said. "She's incredibly fast, so it's going to be really hard to hit a winner on her. She's patient, so she's able to kind of stay out there a long time. She has a perfect game for, not only clay, but for a lot of surfaces.''

Another factor is that while Stephens has had a relatively easy time of it here, Williams has struggled considerably.

Stephens has yet to drop a set in her first three matches, including a 7-6 (5), 6-1 win over Venus Williams in the first round. With a win over Serena on Monday, Stephens would become only the eighth player to beat both Williams sisters in the same tournament.

Serena, on the other hand, has gone to three sets twice. That was no surprise against the previous No. 1 woman, Victoria Azarenka, in Saturday's third-round match, but it was shocking in her second-round match against No. 105 Anna-Lena Friedsam. Serena performed so poorly she made 52 unforced errors and called her level of play "not professional."

Williams withdrew from the tournament in Rome with a bad elbow before coming here. While she says it is improving -- one of her serves was clocked at 126 mph against Azarenka, the fastest on the women's side of this tournament so far -- she still doesn't look like she's in top form.

"I think overall, it was definitely better,'' she said of her play Saturday. "It's definitely a step in the right direction. And I just want -- I really want to be here.''

And that attitude makes her that much tougher. Whether it's against a rival or a non-rival.

"I think she's always good, but as the tournament progresses, she just gets better,'' Ana Ivanovic said. "The further in a tournament you play her, the tougher it gets.''