Sloane Stephens believes, shocks Serena


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MELBOURNE – There was almost no one going into Sloane Stephens’ quarterfinal at the Australian Open against the great Serena Williams who thought she had a serious shot to pull an upset. 

Oh sure,  the 19-year-old Stephens had played her tough enough in a straight-set loss in Brisbane two weeks ago for analysts to think she could stay competitive for two sets. 

But an upset of a five-time Australian Open champion who was on a 20-match winning streak, who had won the last two majors, and the Olympics, and who had only lost one contest since late May? 

Nearly unthinkable. 

Except to Stephens and her USTA Player Development coaches David Nainkin and Troy Hahn. “I think deep down she believed she had a shot and so did I,” said Nainkin after Stephens 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 stunner over Williams in the quarterfinals. “Everyone thought if she played well she’s going to push her, but you can’t just orchestrate that kind of win overnight. That goes back to the practice courts, going over shots time and time again, getting your body strong and eventually it happens. But you can’t just give someone a pep talk the night before and expect that kind of win to happen.” 

Stephens had put in the hard yards in the off-season at theUSTA Training Center – Westin Carson, Calif. For more than two months, six days  a week from Monday to Saturday, she did fitness, drilled and played practice matches. Nainkin said that if it rained or she happened to miss a day for any reason, she would have to show up on Sunday. 

She didn’t miss a day. 

Stephens’ talent level has been obvious since she reached the third round of the US Open in 2011. But she has had trouble staying healthy and missed the entire fall of 212 season nursing an abdominal injury. So Nainkin and the USTA fitness crew first made sure she was healthy and then they worked on polishing up her very bright and sharp gem of a game. Stephens is very fast and has ample power, and has a lot of variety for her age. 

But she needed a better understanding of how to win matches. She had to develop a Sloane Stephens-style of winning. Nainkin’s approach was appropriately general,getting her to dictate with her forehand, being more aggressive with her second serve returns, and coming to net more.

 “She’s great to work with,” he said. “She doesn’t have any weaknesses so  to speak. It was giving her a clearer idea what to do with her game and keeping it simple.” 

When Stephens stepped on court against Williams, she began to listen to the PA announcer listing Serena’s many titles. But she did not lose her focus like young Assume Bernard Tomic said he did early against Roger Federer. “I was like, Do they really have to read all of her championships?,” Stephens said. “I literally was thinking in my head, ‘Is he seriously reading every single tournament she’s won?  It was okay.  I thought about it for two seconds, but it was fine.” 

Serena started fast, but Stephens stayed with her off the ground in the first set. She couldn’t find a way to break her, but patiently waited for  an opportunity and it came when Williams aggravated a back injury in the second set. Stephens grabbed the set as Serena had trouble serving and the teenager was running everything down and sending it back with authority. 

In the third set as Serena began to recover, Stephens didn’t back off. When they met in Brisbane it was Serena who kept coming forward and who took control of the match. On Wednesday in Melbourne Stephens wanted to show her Fed Cup teammate that she could be use her legs to defend and be fierce on offense. Nainkin pointed out two things he wanted Stephens to do in the match: hit her second serve bigger, which she did as she averaged a respectable 91 MPH, and  try and take over the net, which she did brilliantly, converting 18 of 20 of her approaches. “I wanted her to come forward to the net as far as bringing an intimidation factor, so she could put pressure on Serena,” he said. 

As she always does, Williams battled gamely and as her back injury began to feel better in the later stages of the third set, she took it right  to Stephens with a massive ground attack and big retruns.“Serena raised her level and Sloane responded  100 percent,” Nainkin said.

Williams actually broke the youngster to 4-3, but Stephens didn’t quiver as she was winning most of their forehand battles and was more consistent off then ground. It’s nearly impossible to get a ball past her when she’s on.

Three games later, a mentally tired Serena committed  slew of errors and  at 19 years, 10 months and three 3 days old, Stephens became the youngest American to reach a Grand Slam singles semifinal since Serena advanced to the 2000 Wimbledon semifinals at 18 years, 9 months and eight days old. After she came off court, she and Nainkin exchanged a hearty high five.  

“Last night I was thinking about it and someone asked me, ‘Do you think you can win?  I was like, Yeah, I think so,’ but I wasn’t like too clear about it,” Stephens said. “Then this morning when I got up, I was like, Look, dude, like, you can do this.  Like, go out and play and do your best.” 

Stephens may have played like a veteran, but when later discussing the win, she went into teenager mode Her twitter followers had more than doubled from 17,000 followers to more than 35,000 in a matter of a few hours. 

Singer John Legend tweeted her as did NBA standout Dirk Nowitski. “I’m just excited,” she said with a wide smile. “I want John Legend to sing at my wedding.  I was like, Oh, my God.  He tweeted me.’”But there is business to be taken care of on Thursday, as she has to face defending champion Victoria Azarenka in the semis.  Back- to-back wins over Serena and the world No. 1 would be mind blowing. Stephens said she’s going to do what she does best Nainkin thinks that the quick turnaround won’t bother her.“She won’t lose her focus,” he said. 

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