NEW YORK (AP) — Yet to be challenged even a tiny bit at this U.S. Open, Serena Williams now gets a sure-to-be-hyped match against one of only three women to beat her all year, Sloane Stephens.
From the moment the women's draw came out at Flushing Meadows, it was clear which potential fourth-rounder was the most intriguing: defending champion Williams against up-and-coming talent Stephens, the top two Americans in the rankings.
"As I always say," Stephens said, "I think it will be epic."
And that statement came hours before Williams even had advanced out of the third round by beating 78th-ranked Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan 6-3, 6-1 in a match that wrapped up at 1:05 a.m. Saturday.
"I'm so excited you guys stayed out for the late-night rendezvous. Thank you, guys, for staying," Williams told the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd. "I don't think I've ever played this late."
She has dropped a total of eight games through six sets this week. After killing time before facing Shvedova by watching "I Love Lucy" on a computer tablet, Williams produced a 22-3 edge in winners. She faced only one break point, erasing it with one of her six aces, then following up with another at 119 mph.
As for facing Stephens on Sunday, Williams said: "I definitely look forward to it. Whatever happens ... an American for sure will be in the quarterfinals, which is really good."
Much, much earlier, on a ho-hum afternoon devoid of any truly significant surprises, Stephens reached the round of 16 in New York for the first time by beating 23rd-seeded Jamie Hampton 6-1, 6-3 on Friday.
"Serena is the No. 1 player in the world. She's possibly the greatest player of all time. Sloane is Sloane. You know, she's making her own name. She's top 20 in the world for a reason," Hampton said. "They're both great players, both great competitors."
Hampton's blase summation of a Williams-Stephens matchup: "I don't really make too much of it."
She might be the only one.
"It's something," Stephens said, "I think everyone is looking forward to."
And why not? Williams is 31, seeded No. 1, and owns 16 major titles. Stephens is 20, seeded 15th, and already carrying the label of "Next Big Thing" in American tennis. Not only that, but Stephens surprisingly won their Australian Open quarterfinal, one of only four losses in 67 matches for Williams in 2013 (Victoria Azarenka beat her twice, and Sabine Lisicki once). Oh, and then there's this: Stephens found herself in a bit of a brouhaha this year over less-than-flattering comments she made to a reporter about Williams.
"That's all old news now, and we've moved on. We're fine, so I think that's all that matters," Stephens said Friday.
Asked about her relationship with Williams, Stephens replied: "Obviously, we're co-workers. We're Fed Cup teammates. But other than that, everything else is private. It's fine."
When a portion of those comments were relayed to Williams, she said: "We're teammates. I mean, I've always really liked Sloane. I have a lot of respect for Sloane. I think she's a great girl. I think she's great for tennis, as well."
They've played twice in the past — both in January, both on hard courts, both in the quarterfinals. Williams won 6-4, 6-3 at the Brisbane International. Three weeks later, Stephens came back for a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory in Melbourne, where Williams was dealing with an ankle injury.
"She's very aggressive. She stays on top you of you. Doesn't give you any room to breathe. She's intense. She knows what she wants to do out there. That's why she's No. 1," Stephens said.
White House Program Cuts Up to $1k off Monthly Payments! (3.05% APR)