Wimbledon: Sloane Stephens steals spotlight from Serena Williams — again

It was just last January that a teenage Sloane Stephens stunned the tennis world by toppling Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Monday at Wimbledon, the 20-year-old Stephens outshone Williams yet again, though the two Americans competed on different courts.

Within minutes of Williams’s shocking defeat on Centre Court, where the five-time and defending champion squandered a 3-0, third-set lead in falling to Germany’s Sabine Lisicki, Stephens wrapped up a come-from-behind victory over Monica Puig amid far less fanfare on a decidedly less grand court.

While others among Monday’s victorious burst into tears or flung themselves on patchy grass courts upon clinching a spot in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals, Stephens remained a portrait of composure once Puig’s final shot erred.

It was Stephens’s third consecutive three-set victory, this one 4-6, 7-5, 6-1. Rather than grow discouraged over having to claw back from deficits so many times, Stephens appears to draw confidence from it.

“I have to be patient with myself,” said Stephens, a South Florida native whose mother was a collegiate swimmer and her father, John Stephens, killed in a car crash in 2009, was an NFL running back. “I have been in some tough situations. . . . Today I was down the whole time, pretty much. I had to keep fighting, really compete to be able to get the win.”

That leaves the 17th-seeded Stephens the lone American standing at the All England club, where injury and upsets have decimated Wimbledon’s field.

None of the 11 American men among the 128 contenders survived beyond the second round, each of them following seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer and two-time champion Rafael Nadal out the wrought-iron gates.

On the women’s side, Lisicki’s 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 triumph over Williams brought to seven the number of top-10 seeds bounced from the field, leaving the Venus Rosewater Dish, awarded to the women’s champion, truly up for grabs.

From Williams’s perspective, Stephens has a strong chance to claim it Saturday.

“I think she can take it,” Williams said of Stephens, who has yet to win any top-level pro tournament, much less a Grand Slam event. “It would be really nice to see her.”

Informed of Williams’s endorsement, Stephens neither gushed nor blushed.

“I have a ways to go,” she said. “We’ll see.”

Stephens’s march into Wimbledon’s final eight reflects her steady progression these last months. She reached the semifinals of the Australian Open and the round of 16 at the French Open, earning a reputation as a diligent worker, determined fighter and “big-game player” en route.

“We talk about it all the time: You’ve got to work really hard to accomplish your goals and your dreams,” explained Sybil Smith, Stephens’s mother. “It may not happen when you want it to, but it’ll happen on its own time.”

But Williams’s loss to the 23rd-seeded Lisicki, which snapped the American’s career-best 34-match winning streak, was something no one saw coming.

As wagers go, betting on Williams to win her sixth Wimbledon was hardly worth the trouble, the odds were so in her favor—particularly after second-seeded Victoria Azarenka and third-seeded Maria Sharapova exited the field.

Through the tournament’s first three rounds, Williams hadn’t lost a set. In fact, she hadn’t conceded more than three games in any set.

But Williams delivered an error-strewn opening set Monday, while Lisicki blasted away with abandon. The 5-foot-10 Lisicki also boasts a serve that rivals that of Williams (her fastest was clocked at 122 mph Monday, compared with Williams’s 123), and she fired 10 aces to Williams’s seven.

Trailing 1-0 in the second set, Williams stormed back to win nine consecutive games, leveling the match at one set apiece and taking a 3-0 lead in the third set. With 16 major titles on her resume, Williams has no peer among current women’s players when it comes to closing important matches. And she clearly was on a tear.

But Lisicki, 23, refused to buckle, battling back to pull within 4-2. Even though she was down a break, she had a look of absolute belief on her face, almost a smile, as net cords fell against her.

“I just was fighting for every single point, no matter what was happening out there,” Lisicki explained afterward, weeping and beaming at the same time.

Commentating from ESPN’s booth, that’s when three-time Wimbledon champion Chris Evert realized Williams was in trouble. Lisicki’s wild momentum swings were throwing the American off, Evert thought. Accustomed to dictating power and pace, Williams found herself thrust into an alien counterpunching role.

“There were a couple of points where she just played too careful,” Evert said. “She’d hit a ball, hesitate and then back up. She wasn’t playing with fearlessness.”

Afterward, Williams conceded as much.

“I didn’t do what I do best,” Williams said. “I definitely had my opportunities, and I didn’t take them. Maybe I backed off a little bit at some points. . . . If I plan on being successful, I’m never going to do it backing off. I have to play the game I can play. For me, that’s being aggressive.”