After Sloane Stephens' surprising 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 upset over her idol Serena Williams in the Australian Open, the exuberant 19-year-old wasn't thinking about the historical implications of her victory or even her next match. The last thing Stephens said in a post-match interview with ESPN was, "I hope to have a lot more Twitter followers!"
Stephens (whose Twitter account @sloanetweets has tripled its number of followers since the victory) may just be a giddy teenager now, but her victory signaled a changing of the guard in women's tennis. A 15-time Grand Slam singles champion, Williams was the No. 3 seed and a heavy favorite to win the Australian Open. She had never lost to a younger competitor before Stephens. For Stephens, the game was supposed to be a learning experience, a matchup against one of the greatest tennis players in history. Instead it introduced Stephens as an elite tennis player to a global audience.
Here in the United States, we've long awaited new tennis superstars to succeed the Williams sisters and Andy Roddick. With Roddick retiring and the Williams sisters' recent injuries, Stephens is stepping into the limelight at an opportune moment. The daughter of the late John Stephens, who played seven years in the NFL, Sloane grew up with a poster of the Williams sisters in her bedroom. She never mimicked their style of play, but she used their accomplishments as a source of motivation to make it to the top of her sport.
As a younger teenager, Stephens reached the third round of the 2011 U.S. Open and the fourth round of the 2012 French Open. After the biggest victory of her career, she'll play top-seeded Victoria Azarenka in the semifinal on Thursday (late Wednesday night, Eastern time). Next Monday, she'll be the youngest player on the world's Top 20 list.
Regardless of the outcome of tonight's match, Stephens has already become a new role model for young female athletes. As female athletes, we've long been accustomed to surviving in a male-dominated world. However, with American men's tennis in a slump, a women's sport is currently outshining its male counterpart in the States, and Stephens is leading the charge.
So what about that coveted bedroom wall space occupied by the Williams sisters poster? "Oh my goodness, I think I’ll put a poster of myself now," Stephens said in her post-match interview.
Williams was not pleased.