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Sloane Stephens faces crucial match in Serena showdown

The 2017 US Open champ could get back on track with win versus the GOAT

As Sloane Stephens turned to her box and raised her left hand in triumph moments after her decisive win over Madison Keys in the 2017 US Open, a new day had arrived in professional tennis.

Stephens beat Keys that night for the US Open title in a match featuring the first two African American women not named Williams to play in a Grand Slam final. At a time when many wondered if the best tennis from the Williams sisters was behind them (Venus Williams lost to Stephens in the 2017 US Open semifinals, and Serena Williams had just given birth), Stephens appeared positioned to help take up the sport’s “Black Girl Magic” torch.

But since then, Stephens has struggled on the court. Instead, the torch has continued to be held high by Serena Williams (four Grand Slam finals appearances since coming back in 2018) and we’ve witnessed the emergence of Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff.

Stephens, who faces Serena Williams in a third-round match at the 2020 US Open on Saturday, gets a chance to rejoin the conversation in what may be the most crucial match of her career.

Perhaps that’s placing too much weight on Stephens, who is only 27. And that would be true if Stephens was a player with average skills who’s just in the game to play a long career and collect enough checks to maintain a lifestyle. But Stephens has shown, in stretches, that she’s capable of much more.

Her journey to the US Open title in 2017, coming back from surgery and a ranking of No. 934 in the world just over a month before the tournament, was nothing short of meteoric. Stephens beat four top-20 players over the course of that run and demonstrated mental toughness in surviving tough three-set matches over Venus Williams (6-1, 0-6, 7-5 in the semifinals) and Anastasija Sevastova (6-3, 3-6, 7-6 in the quarterfinals) leading up to her dominant performance over Keys for the championship.

Claiming the $3.7 million winner’s check — her biggest career payday — made Stephens downright giddy in one of the more memorable postmatch news conferences.

But Stephens didn’t win a match the rest of the year, which appeared to make her edgy going into her opening-round loss in the 2018 Australian Open.

While Stephens achieved her highest world ranking (No. 3) in both 2018 and 2019 and reached the BNP Paribas WTA Finals in 2018, she hasn’t lived up to the high expectations following her Grand Slam win. She has reached only one more slam final (2018 French Open, where she lost to Simona Halep) and won only one tournament (2018 Miami Open). She has also lost four first-round matches, including another quick exit at the Australian Open this year.

Entering Saturday’s match, she’ll face the greatest of all time. In six matches between the two, Serena Williams has won five.

But Stephens, who is 11 years younger than Serena Williams, is playing Williams for the first time since 2015. She won’t be taking the court against an opponent who, at her peak, likely won a lot of matches through sheer intimidation. Since her return in 2018, Williams has lost Grand Slam finals matches to Angelique Kerber, Osaka, Halep and Bianca Andreescu.

The contentious relationship between Stephens and Williams adds a bit of drama to Saturday’s match. There was a narrative following Stephens’ only career win over Williams in the quarterfinals of the 2013 Australian Open that played up a close relationship, but according to a 2013 ESPN The Magazine story on Stephens, that never really existed.

Since that apparent rift, Stephens has been cordial in public comments about Williams, while also attempting to maintain her own identity.

“Just because Serena has been great and done all the things she’s done, that has nothing to do with me,” Stephens said in an interview with Essence magazine last year in which she praised Williams. “I’m my own person. I’ve done what I’ve done. I’m proud of my accomplishments. I’m trying to do this in this lane, and it has nothing to do with her. … I’m trying to be as good as me. I’m trying to make Sloane the best.”

In 2017, she was pretty damn good. To get back to being her best on the court, winning Saturday’s match against Williams would be a good start.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.