Sloane Stephens may have lost in straight sets on Thursday, but she walked off the court a winner.
First up, yes, she did lose her semifinal with world No.1 Victoria Azarenka 6-1 6-4. Despite this, she won a lot of fans, a ton of new Twitter followers – from 17,000 yesterday to more than 54,000 now – and the respect of the tennis world.
After a first set that lasted just 33 minutes and saw Stephens broken three times, it looked like the occasion and the world No.1 would be too much for the 19-year-old to handle.
“First set she played awesome; [but I] got close in the second,” said Stephens.
“I just didn't want to give it to her basically and just kind of worked for every point.”
It was during the second set that the 29th seed showed why she made it to the final four at the first Grand Slam tournament of 2013, as she kept pace with her more experienced opponent and even had chances to take the lead.
In all, Stephens defended five match points in the pivotal ninth game of the second set that saw both players up then down in turn. But it was Stephens, not Azarenka, who prevailed through a combination of winners and forcing the mistake from the top seed. Stephens’ coolness under extreme pressure was a rare trait in a teenager.
Then came Azarenka’s contentious injury time-out that she maintains was to treat a rib blockage that was causing her to experience breathing problems.
“I couldn't breathe; I couldn't swing,” explained Azarenka. “I think it was pretty obvious that my shots were a little bit different. That's I think the misunderstanding of the situation, you know, what I said that I was stressed out and choked was not because I couldn't finish my shot.
“It was just so stressing me out the pain that I had that – you know, maybe it was overreaction, but I just really couldn't breathe.”
Azarenka spent close to 10 minutes off court with medical staff who worked on her rib to free the blockage. It was a long break, and Stephens had every right to use it as an excuse for a loss of momentum. But she refused to.
“It's [medical time-outs] happened before. I mean, I've had in the last match, the match before, medical breaks, go to the bathroom, the whole showdown
“It was just something else, but it didn't affect anything, I don't think.”
Post-match, Stephens’ next test came from the press, who probed her repeatedly about Azarenka’s medical time-out. But like a seasoned veteran, Stephens played a straight bat to the questions and didn’t fall for the trap of providing journalists with a sensationalist headline.
Instead she did the opposite, revealing that she will be cheering Azarenka on in the final against Li Na on Saturday.
As it turns out, Azarenka and Stephens share an agent and, Stephens says, will at some stage discuss the full events of this semifinal that could well be remembered as a pivotal point in both players’ careers – for entirely different reasons.