By Lindsay Gibbs
The hardest thing in sports to keep is perspective.
After all, sports the bridge between entertainment and reality. Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in the former and completely forget the latter. Often, it's just more fun that way.
Take, for example, the Serena Williams-Sloane Stephens showdown in the fourth round of the U.S. Open -- a match that Serena won handily 6-4, 6-1. The match came with so much hype that it seemed almost like a de-facto final.
The build-up began as soon as the draw came out and it became clear that the top two American women could meet in the fourth round. Flipping through the channels and reading the previews became a "choose your own narrative" adventure.
First there was the former-mentor vs. scorned-mentee angle, which, although shaky in its foundation, was admittedly scintillating.
Here are the Cliffs Notes of that story: Stephens had idolized Serena growing up, and once she was on tour, they became friends. But after Stephens upset Serena at the Australian Open, Serena stopped talking to her. She deleted her from BBM and blocked her on Twitter. She went from hero to villain in the span of one match.
Then there was the out-for-revenge angle. Although Serena was injured during their quarterfinal match in Australia, her loss to Stephens was one of only four losses she suffered all year long. And it came in a Grand Slam. So despite the fact that since that match, Serena has grabbed a hold of the No. 1 ranking and amassed eight titles and over 60 wins, Serena clearly still has something left to prove against someone 11 years younger.
There were also the narratives they chose for themselves:
"I definitely don't feel like I'm going in there as a favorite because she's playing great, even though I'm playing good, too," Serena said before the showdown. "She really has nothing to lose and she excels in situations like that. So I think she'll be really good."
"As I always say, I think it will be epic," Stephens echoed.
All of these storylines were seen through the lens of the "passing-of-the-torch." This was a battle of generations, a match-up of experience vs. youth, of past vs. future.
But, unfortunately, those dramatics leave out just one important thing: the present.
What we actually had headed into this match was a No. 1-seeded 31-year-old with 16 major titles taking on a No. 15-seeded 20-year-old with zero titles to her name. One player was 60-4 on the season heading into the U.S. Open. The other was 29-18.
It was a legend taking on an up-and-comer, and the score -- a tightly contested and impressive first set, followed by a run-away second set -- echoed that.
The unfortunate thing is that, with all of the build-up, the one-hour-and-twenty-minute match seemed like a disappointment. In actuality, it was still an engaging and enlightening match, primarily because of the intriguing contestants.
Serena is, at 31, having one of the best years of her career -- not an easy task. You might say that she has finally found that elusive thing called perspective.
It didn't come easily. Serena has had a rough few years. First she was faced with her own mortality, when a blood clot and pulmonary embolism threatened her life, let alone her career. Then, her sister Venus was diagnosed with Sjogren's Syndrome, an autoimmune disease characterized by extreme fatigue. Serena knew that, compared to what Venus was dealing with on a daily basis, she had no excuses.
Once she was back on tour, she was faced with her on-court vulnerabilities when she lost in the first round of the French Open to Virginie Razzano in 2012. Suddenly, age was catching up with her. She wasn't going to be able to phone it in anymore.
It turns out, that loss was just the wake-up call she needed. With her proud coach and boyfriend Patrick Mouratoglou by her side, Serena has found a drive, work ethic, and consistency that she sometimes lacked in her younger years. These days, she's determined to squeeze as much out of her career as she possibly can.
Sloane Stephens, meanwhile, is still very much a work-in-progress. She has dreams, not perspective, which is just fine for a 20-year-old.
Stephens started the year ranked No. 38, and, as one of the youngest players in the WTA top 100, was certainly one to watch. But she got a bit ahead of schedule when she played her best tennis in January, and was able to take advantage of a very open draw (and an injured Serena) to make her first Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open.
Suddenly, she was The Talk of the Town, The Next Big Thing. There was no more patience.
Things have not been all smooth sailing since. The journey from a kid who has potential to an adult who has expectations is not an easy one. She's made mistakes (most notably her interview with ESPN the Magazine where she opened up about her diminished relationship with Serena), and has been unable to string together good wins outside of the four majors.
Still, Stephens -- who has dealt with her fair share of tragedy in her short life -- has gotten her ranking up to No. 16 in the world, and could reach of the top 10 by the end of the year. She has been consistently impressive on the big stages, and in fact is one of only three women to make the fourth round of every major this year (Serena and Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 4, being the others). That alone, is an accomplishment of -- to borrow her own phrasing -- "epic" proportions.
This match on Sunday was a chance to see how Stephens, with all she has been through and learned in 2013, measured up against an in-form and healthy Serena on the biggest stage in tennis. It wasn't a chance to see what was or what will be, but rather to see what is happening right now with the top two American women, just as they are in this moment.
For a set, Stephens admirably hung with Serena, going toe-to-toe from the baseline, redirecting Serena's power to create winners of her own, and showcasing her phenomenal defense and athleticism. You could see the lethal forehand, the skillful movement, and the innate court-sense that have gotten her into the top 20. You could also see how much potential there is for her to go farther.
Serena, with her underrated defense, unparalleled serve, and relentless aggression, stepped up and showed why she is the best player in the game right now, and perhaps the best player in the game ever. She was simply too much for Stephens during the second half of the match, and she ended up running away with it, taking the final five games.
At the net the two exchanged a few words and smiled, and Serena told the crowd how excited she was for the future of American tennis. Though the two are competitors first and foremost, and likely far from the best of friends, there will no more public catfights. They are, as Stephens put it, "coworkers."
Serena will go on to face Carla Suarez-Navarro in the quarterfinals and try to move a step closer to her 17th Slam, and Stephens will go home a tournament wiser and a step closer to the top 10.
It was an entertaining fourth-round match that went down exactly how the numbers said it should. It might not be a match for the history books, but it was a refreshingly real reminder that while the future might be bright, the present is even brighter.
Sometimes it's nice to just put the hype aside and let the matches tell their own story.
* * *