For more than a decade, Venus and Serena Williams have been the only recognizable American-born tennis champions. Save for Lindsay Davenport, there has not been another American that has come close to beating the sisters at their own game.
Venus and Serena have played in 23 professional matches since 1998. Serena won 13 of the 23. They have played against each other in eight Grand Slam singles finals. Serena's won six. Beginning with the 2002 French Open, they opposed each other in four consecutive Grand Slam singles finals, the first time ever in the open era that the same two players played against each other in four consecutive Grand Slam singles finals, let alone sisters. On the doubles side, the pair have won 13 Grand Slam doubles titles playing alongside each other.
But now, a new face with potential is the up-and-coming Sloane Stephens, the 19-year-old American tennis phenom who announced her presence with authority this week by ousting an injured Serena Williams in the 2013 Australian Open.
She lost under questionable circumstances Thursday in the semifinals. Stephens, going for her first-ever final, when a 10-minute injury timeout was called by her opponent, reigning Australian Open champion and #1-ranked Victoria Azarenka . According to Yahoo.com's "Busted Racket," Stephens was holding her own, but battling, when Azarenka left the court up 5-4 with Stephens set to serve, after missing five match points. Azarenka called for an injury timeout.
For approximately 10 minutes, Stephens sat in her chair, eyes, according to Yahoo, " fixed on a point straight in front of her, wondering why for the second match in a row her opponent was inside while she was just waiting."
Under Australian Open rules, as Reuters pointed out, a player requesting treatment is evaluated and if they have developed "a treatable medical condition" they can then receive a three-minute medical timeout. Australian Open officials recorded two timeouts for Azarenka. By my count, an extra four minutes were added for Azarenka.
Officially, Yahoo News said Azarenka went with the trainers inside because of a chest and back injury, but when questioned by reporters after the match, she blamed her extended disappearance on a panic attack. “I couldn’t breathe, you know,’’ Azarenka told Yahoo.com. “That game, you know, I just had chest pain, like getting a heart attack or something out there. I just needed to make sure it’s okay cause I really couldn’t breathe.’’
I've seen basketball players flop at both the college and professional ranks to get to the free throw line. I've seen medical timeouts aplenty, for many reasons, at all levels of sport. But it is suspect that the #1-ranked tennis player would suffer a panic attack on the court against someone she was beating, despite missing five match shots. It's my opinion that players will do what they can for an edge, Azarenka included. This was the equivalent of a "mulligan" in golf.
Azarenka tried to explain away her on-court comments as a misunderstanding, saying she thought she had been asked why she couldn't close out the match, rather than what had happened with her timeout.
"I understand the whole situation right now but it just really simple misunderstanding of a question," Azarenka told ESPN. "I guess it was my bad."
Whether the 'panic attack' was real or faked, the 10-minute break paid off big time. Azarenka advanced to the Final to take on China's Li Na.
It was a shame for Stephens, a rising star among tennis elites and one of the few Americans able to beat Europeans consistently. As a result of her victory over Williams, Stephens leapfrogged her ranking to #17 in the world, up 12 spots in just two weeks time. It continues a steady upward climb Stephens began in 2012 by advancing to the fourth round of the 2012 French Open by defeating Ekaterina Makarova, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and Mathilde Johansson. In the fourth round, she lost to sixth seed Samantha Stosur in two sets.
She advanced to the third round of Wimbledon by defeating Karolina Pliskova in the first round and upsetting 23rd seed Petra Cetkovská in three sets in the second round. In the third round, she lost to German Sabine Lisicki.
My disappointment lies in the fact that Stephens was a breath of American fresh air in a world long dominated by Venus and Serena Williams. Stephens' victory over Williams signaled that perhaps a new and pretty teen tennis face would merge forth and compete with the likes of the Belarussian Azarenka, Russian Maria Sharapova, and other Europeans who have dominated the world tennis scene.