Sloane Stephens defeated Serena Williams 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 in Wednesday's quarterfinal at the Australian Open. Serena, although seeded third, was heavily favored to win not just her match with Sloane, the 29th-seeded American teenager, but the whole tournament. The match turned suddenly though, early in the second set, when Serena ran for a short ball and, on stopping abruptly to avoid touching the net, strained her lower back. For the next several games, her mobility was greatly impaired, and she couldn't hit her serve with nearly its usual pace. Sloane struggled to take advantage, missing more often and hitting less aggressively than usual, but she got herself to 5-4 and serving for the set. At this point, it looked as if Serena would be saved by Sloane's nerves and inexperience, as Sloane sent one first serve after another into the net and most second serves right into Serena's forehand wheelhouse, where, without taking a step, Serena blasted return winners. Serena broke serve and leveled the match at 5-5, but Sloane regained enough composure to break back and then hold to win the set as Serena continued to struggle. In the third set, Serena's mobility and serve largely recovered, but she was less aggressive and much more error-prone than usual, and Sloane's level of play improved considerably, earning her the victory.
Although it took Sloane a while to find her composure in playing an injured opponent who has also been something of a mentor--not to mention having her first opportunity to make a major semifinal--once her nerves settled down, she seemed to make some smart tactical choices. For an opponent with lower back problems, a two-handed stroke is especially difficult, as having both hands on the racquet forces the shoulders to rotate and twist the lower back more. Sloane seemed to realize that Serena was having more trouble on her two-handed backhand and started hitting more balls there. She also came to net behind a low, slice approach shot that Serena couldn't bend under enough to hit a topspin pass. Sloane won an impressive 18 of 20 points at the net, pressuring a less-than-sharp Serena to hit passing shots, which require more accuracy than other groundstrokes.
Sloane's next opponent is Victoria Azarenka, the top seed.