Just a few weeks shy of her 32nd birthday, Williams stared down the likely future of the women’s game in the United States and, with the force of her groundstrokes, the skilled placement of her serves and a fierce eruption of “C’mon!” upon getting a critical service break, declared she has no interest in being supplanted any time soon.
With her 6-4, 6-1 victory, the defending champion clinched a berth among the tournament’s final eight and exacted revenge against the 20-year-old Stephens, who ousted her from the Australian Open in January.
“Going into the match, I definitely wanted to be focused the whole time,” said Williams, who finished with 22 winners and 13 unforced errors. “Whether I was going to win or lose, I just wanted to play my game and do well.”
It was the third installment of their budding rivalry. Williams prevailed in straight sets in a tournament in Brisbane, Australia, in early January. Three weeks later, Stephens pulled off the three-set shocker in the season’s first major.
At the time Williams was hampered by a sprained ankle and back spasms.
Sunday’s match offered a truer picture of the competitive gap between them, with Williams seizing the momentum early in the second set and never relenting, managing to hike up her intensity and accuracy down the stretch while her young challenger seemed to lose her bearings and belief.
But if Stephens has proved anything this season, toppling Williams in January and third-ranked Maria Sharapova in August, it’s that she’s a quick study and is closing fast on the top ranks of the sport. She also competes with impressive composure, telegraphing little if any frustration when shots go awry. And she thrives on the sport’s biggest stages, having reached the fourth round or better at all four majors this season.
“I embrace it,” Stephens said when asked about being characterized so often as the “heir apparent” to Williams, who has won 16 majors, including four U.S. Open championships.
“Everyone has their time to shine,” added Stephens, who, like so many tennis-obsessed youngsters, once decorated her bedroom with a poster of Williams. “She’s obviously number one in the world for a reason. She has earned every opportunity she has gotten. I think she makes the most out of every time she’s on the court.”
Their relationship has been the topic of tremendous speculation.
After her defeat in Brisbane, Stephens was quoted as criticizing Williams for exulting too much on court.
Then in a May interview with ESPN the Magazine, Stephens said Williams wasn’t as friendly as most people believed, portraying her as cold and distant following Stephens’s victory at the Australian Open.
Stephens later said she hadn’t understood the comments would be publicly aired and insisted she had nothing but admiration for Williams, who singled out Stephens for praise heading into Wimbledon.