Six-time US Open champion Serena Williams and 2017 winner Sloane Stephens are set to face off at Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Saturday afternoon (2 p.m. ET, ESPN2) in the most hyped match of the third round of the 2020 US Open.
Somehow Williams and Stephens haven’t played against one another since 2015, but as two of the most recognizable figures in American tennis, the expectations for the showdown couldn’t be higher.
“She’s a great competitor,” Williams said about Stephens on Thursday. “It’s an incredibly interesting match because she’s actually a US Open champion. She’s a great player. You can’t win a Grand Slam and not be really, really, really, really, really good.”
Williams owns a 5-1 career record over Stephens, but with both playing well in their first two matches of the tournament, anything is possible. Despite their age difference — Williams is 38, Stephens is 27 — the two have a fairly lengthy history.
Let’s take a look back at their complicated relationship on and off the court.
January, Brisbane International quarterfinals: Coming off a strong 2012 season of winning Wimbledon and US Open titles, Williams was the overwhelming favorite in her first career matchup against Stephens. It was a highly anticipated match between the pair. Stephens had previously expressed her admiration for Williams and her sister Venus.
Serena Williams ultimately took the match in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, but it was perhaps much tougher of a fight than she was anticipating. She yelled, “Come on!” in trademark fashion throughout the match during the crucial points. Stephens was heard calling it “disrespectful” to her box during a changeover. She later said it was simply “friendly fire”.
There were clearly no hard feelings on Williams’ part. She paid Stephens perhaps the highest of compliments: “I think she can be the best in the world one day.”
January, Australian Open quarterfinals: Just weeks after their initial meeting, Stephens pulled off the biggest upset of the season’s first Grand Slam. After dropping the first set, the then-19-year-old stormed back for a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory, announcing herself as the young player to watch. It was easily the biggest victory of Stephens’ career to date and ended a 20-match win streak for Williams.
Stephens, who had previously said she had a poster of Williams on her wall as a child, was overcome with emotion after the match.
“This is so crazy. Oh my goodness,” she said through tears during her postmatch TV interview. “I think I’ll put a poster of myself [up] now.”
Two days later, Williams posted a cryptic (and since deleted) tweet that read simply: “I made you.” Fans — and Stephens herself — believed it was referring to the young American.
May: In an interview with ESPN The Magazine that quickly went viral, Stephens didn’t hold back on her feelings about Williams. She revealed that the two had never been close despite what was previously written in the media. She went on to say Kim Clijsters had always been her favorite player and said that Williams completely ignored her following the match in Melbourne.
“She’s not said one word to me, not spoken to me, not said hi, not looked my way, not been in the same room with me since I played her in Australia,” Stephens said. “And that should tell everyone something. How she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter.
“Like, seriously! People should know. They think she’s so friendly and she’s so this and she’s so that — no, that’s not reality! You don’t unfollow someone on Twitter, delete them off of BlackBerry Messenger. I mean, what for? Why?”
Williams did not respond to Stephens’ accusations publicly.
September, US Open fourth round: Dubbed a “grudge match” by many, Williams let her racket do the talking. There wasn’t much drama on the court — Williams won the match 6-4, 6-1 and went on to win the title.
March, BNP Paribas Open fourth round: Williams and Stephens didn’t face off on court in 2014, but their rivalry was brought back to the forefront during the 2015 Sunshine Swing. When asked if their relationship had been repaired, Stephens said: “No. She’s a competitor. She’s the No. 1 player in the world. She’s, what do you call it? She’s a, you know, when you work with someone? A colleague. There you go, she’s a colleague.”
After a competitive first set at Indian Wells, Williams beat her “coworker” 6-7, 6-2, 6-2.
May, Madrid Open second round: Williams needed less than an hour to secure the 6-4, 6-0 victory as the two met for the first time on clay.
September, French Open fourth round: When Williams was asked where their relationship currently stood during her prematch news conference, she gave a fairly diplomatic answer.
“I mean, I don’t know,” she said. “I just feel like I have always said from day one, I always root for her and [like to] see another African American doing well. I think she’s super cute, so I always root for her.”
But she obviously wasn’t rooting for Stephens during their match and needed to dig deep during three hard-fought sets. Williams started slow but found her groove once her back was against the wall. She won the match 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 and went on to win her third title at Roland Garros.
Williams made her return to competition at Indian Wells following her maternity leave, just six months after giving birth. She was lauded by many of her peers for her comeback, and Stephens hinted she was using Williams as a gauge for her own career.
After telling reporters she didn’t plan on playing into her 30s she said: “Well, I mean — well, we’ll see. I mean, Serena had a baby, and eventually I want to have a baby, as well. So if she comes back and wins a couple more Slams, maybe I will think about it. But I’m kind of just gauging it on how well she does, and then we’ll see.”
During a video interview with Essence Magazine before the 2019 US Open, Stephens praised Williams while also making it clear she doesn’t want to be compared to her.
“Just because Serena has been great and done all the things she’s done, that has nothing to do with me,” she said. “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. Whatever she does is amazing. She’s done so much for the sport.”
Stay tuned …