American teenager Sloane Stephens ended Serena Williams’ bid for a historic calendar-year Grand Slam when she sent the injury-hampered favourite crashing out of the Australian Open on Wednesday.
As Williams, who was troubled by ankle problems earlier in the tournament, required treatment for back spasms and smashed her racket as the match slipped away, Stephens held her nerve to win 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 in 2 hours, 17 minutes.
“This is so crazy,” said Stephens, who used to have Williams’ poster on her bedroom wall. “I think I’ll put a poster of myself up now.”
Stephens, 19, regarded as Williams’ successor as the force of women’s tennis in the US, now goes into a semi-final against world No.1 and defending champion Victoria Azarenka.
Williams, who had trumpeted her chance of winning the Grand Slam this year, said the defeat brought to an end one of the most painful major tournaments of her career.
“For a Grand Slam, absolutely,” she said, when asked if it was the worst condition she’d been in. “Oh my gosh. I’m almost relieved that it’s over because there was only so much I could do. It’s been a little difficult. I’ve been thrown a lot of balls these two weeks.
“Between the ankle, which is like this big every day,” she said, gesturing, “and my back, which started hurting, there’s been a lot of stuff.”
The teenager was able to match her elder’s trademark power in the opening exchanges, but errors crept in towards the end of the 28-minute first set. Stephens played a dispirited opening game in the second set and Williams pounced. Appearing untroubled by the right ankle she rolled in the first round, Williams took a 2-0 lead before the youngster fought back. Stephens showed glimpses of her much-hyped shot-making to break Williams’ serve in the fourth game of the second set. Forehands started hitting the mark and her first serve was matching Williams’ deliveries of 107 miles (172km) per hour.
She had a break point on Williams’ serve at 3-2, only for the world No.3 to slide an ace down the T.
"Stephens now goes into a semi-final against world No.1 and defending champion Victoria Azarenka"
At 3-4, 0-30, Williams grimaced after hitting a backhand winner. Close to the net, she had to pull up quickly to avoid making contact with the net and losing the point.
“Well, I was running to the net for a drop shot,” Williams recalled of the moment she tweaked her back. “As I went to hit it, it was on the backhand—I even screamed on the court. I was like, aagh. I totally locked up after that. It was a little painful. It was hard to rotate to the backhand. I’m already on anti-inflammatories for my ankle, so you can’t do too much more.”
She began hobbling between points, lost strength on her serve and Stephens broke for 5-3. Williams attempted to keep rallies short by hitting winners, and Stephens had an attack of nerves to lose serve when trying to level it at a set apiece.
Williams called for the trainer at 4-5, complaining of back spasms. In the next game, she could barely serve but her groundstrokes remained potent.
“At that point, you just have to pretend like nothing’s wrong,” she said. “You think of worst- case scenarios. My legs were fine, so running was fine. Just rotating on the serve and backhand was tough.”
Williams angrily smashed her racket on the court while blowing the chance to claim the world No.1 ranking. “Did you see it?” she said of her racket-busting tantrum. “I even had a wry smile on my lips after that. It made me happy, unfortunately.”
She held serve to love as Stephens lost composure, but the teenager staved off a break point in the following game to lead 6-5, and won her second set point to take the match into a decider.
Games went on serve until Williams broke Stephens for a 4-3 lead. Williams’ movement had improved to a significant degree, but Stephens broke back amid excruciating tension. A final break of serve gave the teenager the biggest win of her career.
“Should be good,” she said of her semi-final on Thursday. “I’ll go out and do the thing again.”
Defending champion Azarenka survived a torrid early battle with Svetlana Kuznetsova to reach the semi-finals and keep her grip on the No.1 ranking. A marathon first set took 1 hour, 17 minutes before the world No.1 completed her 7-5, 6-1 triumph in 1 hour, 47 minutes.
The first game was a drawn-out scrap, lasting 8 minutes and going to Russian comeback queen Kuznetsova, a two-time major-winner who is making a successful return from injury. Azarenka then trailed 1-4 but she broke back to peg the deficit to 3-4 as errors crept into Kuznetsova’s previously steady onslaught. Another break gave Azarenka a 6-5 lead and she held her nerve to close the set.
“She played really well throughout the whole match,” Azarenka said. “At the beginning, it took adjustment because she plays such a different game. I’m glad I fought through and produced my best tennis when it was needed.”
The unseeded Kuznetsova took a 4-3 win-loss record into the match. She is undergoing a career resurgence at the age of 27, making a mockery of her world ranking of 75 by beating No.10 Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round. Her lowly standing at the end of an injury-marred 2012 was the first time in 11 years she was outside the top 50. But although she pushed Azarenka to the limit, the defending champion hung tough.
“It is the fire I have,” the world No.1 said. “I have so much passion for the game since I was a kid. I wouldn’t leave the court until 10 o’clock at night. But it is important to keep calm and keep humble in this sport.” AFP