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The American tennis establishment — its media, its retired players, its anxiety-ridden conscience — has long known what it had in Sloane Stephens: a tenacious competitor with blinding baseline-to-net quickness, a heavy, pancake-flat forehand and an affably-outsized personality that far too often evades its prized tennis prodigies.
But in order for Stephens to make the transition from hopeful to headliner, she needed a marquee win on the world’s biggest tennis stage. And for all of the women’s games great players, Li Na, Victoria Azarenka or Caroline Wozniacki would simply not do.
Make no mistake: Sloane Stephens needed to beat Serena Williams. In a late-round battle in Paris, Flushing, London or Melbourne. An epic three-setter? Icing on the cake. And that is exactly what happened on Wednesday in Melbourne (and on Tuesday night in the United States) in front of a rapt worldwide audience: Stephens bested Serena Williams in exhilarating fashion, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.
Stephens had just under 18,000 followers before she took the court at Rod Laver Arena. On Wednesday morning, she was hovering around 44,000 and counting. She also received congratulatory tweets from John Legend, Shaquille O’Neal, Dirk Nowitzki, Rudy Gay and Jozy Altidore. Hers was the top story on ESPN.com and Yahoo! Sports, and the Sydney-based newspaper, The Australian, ran a story headlined, “Tennis’s new poster girl.” Post match, the reporter alluded to a poster she had of Serena in her bedroom. Answering if she’d ever thought she’d beat Serena to reach her first semifinal, Stephens wept.
“This is so crazy, oh my goodness, but I think I’ll put a poster of myself now.”
There will be plenty of posters to choose from. The women’s game, desperate for its next great American star, has it now, and for the 19-year-old, the possibilities seem endless. The same megawatt smile Stephens flashed again and again Wednesday is the envy of brand marketers everywhere. Already, Under Armour, which could never have imagined its good fortune, is seeking ways to capitalize on Stephens’ performance, but is holding its cards close to the vest. Stephens reportedly told The Wall Street Journal her dream endorsements would be Rolex and Ford — if true, both brands would be foolish not to call.
AJ Maestas, president of Navigate Research, says earning potential and winning are inextricably linked.
“[Oncourt] performance is the most highly correlated variable and most important factor towards earning money,” he said recently.