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Teenager Who Beat Serena Williams Thrust Into Spotlight After Win


A stunning upset in Australia and a huge moment for a 19-year-old American tennis player. Sloan Stephens, who has never won any title, knocked out the powerhouse Serena Williams to a chance at the semifinals at the Australian Open.

SLOANE STEPHENS: This morning when I got up, I was like, look, dude, like, you can do this. Like, just go out and play and do your best.

BLOCK: That's Sloane Stephens after the match in Melbourne. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated is there covering the Open. Jon Wertheim, dude, Sloane Stephens was down a set. She came back to win. How did she do it?


BLOCK: Dude.

WERTHEIM: She can really play tennis. She did what so few have done against Serena Williams and neutralized her power. In fairness, she did benefit from - Serena had a bit of an injury. But this was a very poised, unflustered performance. There's a nice mix of offense and defense in here game. She really, trite as it sounds, she really did meet the moment yesterday. Big, big win for her.

BLOCK: Worth noting, too, that these are both African-American women and the hyperbole around Sloane Stephens' victory is huge so this - she has ignited a bomb under women's tennis. Make no mistake, a star is born.

WERTHEIM: Hey, we've dudes and bombs in our story. That's rare. But no, I mean, I think you know, it's funny is the racial subtext of this is something that will be explored. Already we're hearing about how Serena was Sloane Stephens' hero and idol when, in fact, in truth, that's really not the case at all. Inevitably, there're going to be comparisons, but the truth is that Sloane Stephens is a very talented player who happens to be African-American.

But any notion that she was inspired by Serena Williams, that she took up the sport because of her, as has already been reported, is patently false. And I think, if anything, the fact that there isn't this obvious cause and effect I think is actually grounds for celebration.

BLOCK: How would you describe Sloane Stephens' style of play? What makes her so great?

WERTHEIM: She's very quick on the court. She's not all large. She's not a big intimidating physical presence, but she hits with deceptive power. She moves very well. She has a very outgoing personality, as we heard. She's really been endearing and she's very social. And I think that really is an asset when she plays. That really came to bear yesterday.

I mean, she's playing Serena Williams. She'd never been this far in a major tournament. She's only 19 and the first three times she served for three games, she did not lose a point. She was the more composed player at the end and I think her love of the stage is really something that's going to be an asset to her career.

BLOCK: I read that after the match, Sloane Stephens rushed over to her cellphone to see whether her mom had sent her a text. Her mother is not there with her in Melbourne.

WERTHEIM: And then she checked her Twitter following, which, of course, if the great currency when you're 19 years old. You know, I talked to Sloane Stephens after the match and she said, do you know how much prize money you get for reaching the semifinals of a grand slam tournament? So she didn't know about her prize money, but she did know her Twitter following. Sign of the times.

But her mother and also her grandparents who she says were watching on the box, which is what they call a computer, are not here with her. You can be assured that they will most likely be present at the next big event she plays.

BLOCK: And she reported that she had gotten a tweet from John Legend. Is that right?

WERTHEIM: She would like John Legend to sing at her wedding. And there's something very endearing about this. I mean, sometimes you see these players and even as teenagers, they're fairly jaded and they're cautious about what they say and they don't necessarily exude much joy and Sloane Stephens is completely unplugged. And who knows how long it will last, but she's really enjoying the occasion and it makes it very easy to root for her as well.

BLOCK: That's Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated. We've been talking about Sloane Stephens, the 19-year-old who beat Serena Williams to advance to the semi-finals at the Australian Open. Jon, thanks so much.

WERTHEIM: Thanks, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.