Stephens starring on biggest stages

NEW YORK -- That cliché athletes have about never looking ahead?

Apparently, it doesn't count when they're looking ahead for their opponent.

Sloane Stephens called her anticipated fourth-round US Open match with defending champion Serena Williams "epic," which may well turn out to be true even if Stephens made the comment before Williams had played her third-rounder against Yaroslava Shvedova on Friday night.

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Sloane Stephens' star has continued to rise in Grand Slam events.

Stephens, who moved into the Round of 16 with an easy 6-1, 6-3 victory over Jamie Hampton on Friday afternoon, even gave a little ammo to the headline writers by calling Williams "a co-worker."

" We're Fed Cup teammates," Stephens continued. "But other than that, everything else is private."

Hmm.

Stephens, who moves into the second week of a Grand Slam for the fourth time this year, did not have to exactly be clairvoyant to predict a rematch of the Australian Open quarterfinals, in which the then-19-year-old upset Williams and snapped her 20-match win streak.

Williams, as expected, had an easy time with the 78th-ranked Shvedova, dispatching her 6-3, 6-1 in 1 hour, 14 minutes.

The match between Stephens, seeded 15th, and Hampton, No. 23, the second- and third-highest-ranked American women in the draw, had far more promise before falling flat under a flurry of unforced errors by Hampton (34 to 15 for Stephens) and solid court coverage by the athletic Stephens.

Stephens also put 70 percent of her first serves in play, winning 66 percent of them, and was never threatened in the 62-minute match.

"I think she's had more experience on the big stage," Hampton said. "Personality wise, she embraces it a little better than I do."

Two years ago, Stephens came into the Open ranked 106th in the world. A year later, she already was U.S. tennis' rising "It" girl, her picture plastered on posters in the New York subway regardless of the fact she had just broken into the top 50 and that 20-year-old American Christina McHale was ranked 24th. Oh yes, and that she had yet to beat a top-10 player.

It was her prowess on the biggest stages that justifiably made the biggest impression.

"I think she just likes the big matches," Hampton said of Stephens. "She shows up to play the Slams for sure."

Stephens, who is 17-15 in non-grand slam tournaments, reached the third round in that 2011 Open and again in 2012. She reached the fourth round at Wimbledon last year and the signs were there, which she built upon with the semifinal berth in Melbourne, a fourth-round finish at this year's French Open and a quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon to eventual champion Marion Bartoli last month.

Now Williams looks around the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and still sees posters, but this time life-sized.

"It's like high school," she said. "The cool kids, the jocks, have all the posters and stuff and I just have massive blow-ups of myself all over the US Open. It's pretty cool, it's interesting, but it comes with a lot of pressure and it's a little difficult. But all in all, it's OK. I love seeing myself, so I guess it works out."

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Jamie Hampton, left, and Sloane Stephens meet at the net after their match Friday. Hampton said she has a tendency to play "really bad" in big moments.

What does a 20-year-old budding star have to do to take the next step?

Another victory over Williams and her first grand slam championship would certainly do the trick.

"I could [imagine it]," Stephens said. "But I'm young, so we'll see."

Stephens, while not looking flawless this week, has now put together two very strong matches in a row this week, dropping just two games in dominating Urszula Radwanska in the second round before controlling Hampton.

A fourth-round clash between Williams and Stephens caps a year that began with comments interpreted as antagonistic after the Australian -- Stephens saying Williams, who was hampered by a sprained ankle and back spasms, was not supportive of her and unfriendly -- but mellowed by Wimbledon, with Williams going out of her way to say she was rooting for Stephens after her own loss.

"Awesome," Stephens said with proper diplomacy. "Coming from one of the greatest players to ever play the game, that feels really good. … But other than that, if you don't really live up to it, it's a wash."

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