Posted: Wed January 23, 2013 12:48AM; Updated: Wed January 23, 2013 9:07AM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>INSIDE TENNIS

Stephens seizes her moment in upset of Serena Williams

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Sloane Stephens
No. 29 Sloane Stephens will face No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals Thursday.
Aaron Favila/AP

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Need more evidence that tennis is the cruelest sport of them all? From an early age, players practice relentlessly, innumerable chunks of time sacrificed at the altar of the practice court. Quick back-of-the-notebook math suggests that players make a mockery of the "10,000 hours rule." And the practice is, almost necessarily, monotonous. It's an individual sport. There are only a few strokes, and they must commit to muscle memory. Unlike golf, the dimensions of the field never change.

Then, for all that prep time, the big occasions -- those "moments of truth," as the cliché-prone call them? Those instances when players try to coalesce their gifts and experience under the brightest lights? They are few and far between. And they are fleeting. All that rehearsal and, often, only a few big shows.

Sloane Stephens had the first Big Show of her ascendant career Wednesday. The 19-year-old American played in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time. Her opponent? The prohibitive favorite to win the Australian Open, the great Serena Williams, who had lost once since May and won the last two majors plus Olympic gold.

The Stephens camp tried valiantly to convince its player that this was just another match. But, of course, if wasn't. And Stephens needed only to look at her phone for confirmation. She had received hundreds upon hundreds of texts (kids, today) since winning her fourth-round match. An opportunity to take down Williams in the latter rounds of a major? Hard to outwit yourself about the magnitude of that.

"Look, dude, like, you can do this," Stephens thought when she woke Wednesday.

How did Stephens do when the moment arrived? Well, she rolled with it. And, under awkward circumstances, she still played the match of her life, taking out The Mighty One 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Yes, a central storyline of this match will be Williams' injuries. The right ankle that she aggravated Tuesday and restricted her movement. The back spasms that caused her to patty-cake first serves at speeds that wouldn't get you a ticket on the freeway. (Serena Williams? A 73 mph serve?)

Video: Serena destroys racket in frustration

But someone else can write about that. This was truly about Stephens crushing her big debut. Thoroughly unflustered, she won her first three service games without dropping a point and led 3-2 -- fully aware that a fast start was essential. She hung with Serena in the rallies, retrieved brilliantly and revealed herself to be a comparable mover. Stephens lost the set but resisted any instinct to depart from her aggressive game plan. Deep into the second set, she had more winners than Williams.

After an hour, we got our obligatory throb of drama. In the course of a few minutes, Williams aggravated her ankle and suffered the back spasms. Down 4-5 in the second set, she took an injury timeout.

"You just have to pretend like nothing's wrong," Williams said. "You think of worst-case scenarios. You know, I just thought, OK, just pretend nothing's wrong and just try your best."

Tennis players will tell you all the time: It's easier to play a healthier opponent than a wounded opponent. Indeed, when Williams returned to the court, Stephens dropped the next four points.

"I definitely felt like she got a little nervous," Williams said.

But she adjusted, and continued to take the match to Williams. "Forget it, might as well just go for it," Stephens said. She moved her opponent around the court and boldly (sadistically?) unfurled drop shots. She attacked the net early and often, winning 18 of her 20 ventures on the day. (Note to the rest of the field: That's more volleying than Williams will sometimes do in an entire tournament.) Stephens transitioned from defense to offense and back again. She constructed points masterfully.

At 4-4 in the third set -- and with Williams suddenly looking less injured -- Stephens had a monologue with herself. "Gotta go get it." This was her moment. Who knows when the next one would come? She held, then she broke Williams and, like that, had pulled off the upset.

The day hadn't gone as planned. The Big Moment didn't unfold as she had anticipated. No matter. She nailed it. Her immediate reaction in the on-court interview?

"Oh my God, I don't even know," she said, engulfing her hands onto her white visor. "Oh my goodness."

Stephens vowed to reward herself with a gift, in addition to the Jimmy Choos already on her list. She gets all sorts of other rewards. Rankings point that will plant her firmly in the top 20. More than $500,000 in prize money, minimum. Immeasurable hype. ("The torch is passed!") A massive uptick in Twitter followers (@sloanetweets).

"John Legend tweeted me," she said. "Dirk [Nowitzki] tweeted me. I mean, I'm just excited. I want John Legend to sing at my wedding."

Above all, she gets to come back Thursday and play a (winnable) semifinal against No. 1 Victoria Azarenka. That is, she gets another Big Moment.

Twitter reaction, video, stats of Stephens' win

Mailbag

All this talk of Novak Djokovic and the possibility of three straight Australian Open titles got me thinking. I cannot think of a single instance where Rafael Nadal has successfully defended a non-clay-court title. Could this be possible? And what does that mean for his legacy? Just on this basis (if I'm right), I'm inclined to bump Djokovic to No. 2 over Nadal, in the GOAT order of succession.
-- Croydon Fernandes, Chicago

• Believe you're right. (Though you could make the case that he defended his 2008 Wimbledon title since he didn't play in 2009 and then won in 2010.) I think you're being a bit harsh here. A few non-clay title defenses would be nice. But is that really a reason to rate an 11-time Slam winner below a five-timer?

Svetlana Kuznetsova the best woman never to reach No. 1? I would vote for Hana Mandlikova. Four Grand Slam wins but having a career that overlapped with three of the greatest ever in Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf all but precluded her from reaching the top spot.
-- Tony, New York

• Good one. Can't top that off the top of my head. But what about the fact that Kuznetsova hasn't done it, even in this quantity-over-quality era in which no-time Slam winners get to No. 1? Does this cut for her? Or against her? Discuss.

JENKINS: Women's depth catching up to men's

Regarding the best player to never have been ranked No. 1, Guillermo Vilas has a much stronger case than Andy Murray.
-- Jignesh, West Lafayette/Singapore

• I like the Indiana-Singapore move. And I don't argue with your assertion.

Nadal gets a "B" (read respectable but not spectacular) in Aussie Open Midterm Grades for moving up his return date to a tournament with no consequence to the Aussie Open. And yet Stan Wawrinka gets no mention for playing the match of his life against arguably the best player on tour.
-- Tallboyslim, Santa Ana

• I'm surprised how many of you took issue with this. Only point on Nadal: It's unfortunate he's not in Australia. It's a good sign that he keeps moving up his return. Tennis is better when he's around.

Certain commentators really need to lay off the completely unfounded argument that the Williams sisters deserve to be seeded No. 1 in doubles just because everyone "knows" they're the best.
-- Robert B., Melbourne, Fla.

• It's a moot point now. They lost in doubles to top-seeded Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci in what is likely to stand as the upset of the tournament. It's a slippery slope to start seeding players based on intuition. But seeds are, to some extent, supposed to be predictive. And I admit that there is something odd about a team that wins 50 percent of the majors it enters being seeded No. 12.

***

Christopher M. Jones of West Chester, Pa., has long-lost-siblings: Milos Raonic and Max Burkholder (Max Braverman from Parenthood on NBC.)

PHOTOS: Day 10 highlights from Melbourne

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