Despite loss, Stephens has arrived

NEW YORK -- Sloane Stephens met her mother and a group of friends in the tunnel outside the Arthur Ashe Stadium court. Fresh off a 6-4, 6-1 loss to No. 1 Serena Williams in the fourth round of the US Open, Sybil Smith briefly put a hand on her daughter's shoulder. But there wasn't a lot of consoling necessary.

As the 15th seed, Stephens knew it wouldn't be easy and, as one of just four women to beat Williams this year, she knew the veteran would be wary of a rematch. Somehow, in half of Stephens' Grand Slam events this year, Williams was there early.

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

While Sloane Stephens predicted the fourth-round match against Serena Williams would be "epic," it was anything but for the 20-year-old American.

"Yeah, it's tough," Stephens said. "But everyone has their time to shine. I think [Williams is] obviously No. 1 in the world for a reason. She's earned every opportunity she's gotten. … Maybe one day when she's not playing, people would be, 'I wish I wasn't on the same side as Sloane.' Things happen in their time."

At 20, Stephens has made a statement with a strong year that, if she isn't yet able to beat the Queen of American tennis, she is at least the heir apparent. The process hasn't come without its difficulties. There was a public burst of frustration from Stephens when she perceived Williams ended their friendship after her win at the Australian Open, but being a professional is about learning to move on.

"I think Sloane's grown quite a bit," said Smith, who was an All-American swimmer at Boston University. "It's very tough when you're thrust into the spotlight and there are lots of expectations, but I think she's managed it very well. To grow up in the spotlight, with people paying close attention, can be very challenging. Overall, she's been herself, she's been true to herself."

She has grown a lot on the court as well. This year, Stephens reached an Australian Open semifinal, the fourth round at the French and US Opens, and a quarterfinal at Wimbledon. In 2012, the French Open fourth round was her best result at a major and she hovered around the top 50.

"She's a different player," her coach, David Nainkin, said. "You can see it. I was actually thinking early in the match of when she lost to Ana Ivanovic last year, reflecting on how she's improved as a tennis player and a person. She's really come a long way."

Williams was asked after the match: What does Stephens need to work on to reach the next level?

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The previous time Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens met at the net, it was after a Stephens upset. This time, Williams won in straight sets.

"I don't think she has to work on anything," Williams said. "I think she is at the next level."

While some of the up-and-comers struggle against the true power hitters, Stephens has beaten Williams and Maria Sharapova, and been a tough out for Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska. She needed to guard against overhitting against Williams, who at times stood five feet or more behind the baseline to absorb Stephens' powerful shots. Without saying it, the 31-year-old Williams was showing respect to Stephens' game.

"She is definitely a very strong force," Nainkin said. "She's a great talent and she's going to be an asset to American tennis."

That campaign starts now. Last season, Stephens missed time on tour, from the end of the US Open until December, with a torn abdominal muscle. Now, she travels with a trainer to keep her body conditioned and healthy. She will be able to play some of those late tournaments, and with no points to defend, should be able to move up the rankings.

"I'm going to try and break the top 10 at the end of this season," Stephens said. "I think that's a big jump from where I was last year, kind of around 40 and kind of lingering. I think this year has been a pretty good year for me. I'm going to try to end it with a bang."

There is a confidence in speaking your goals aloud in the media room at the US Open, but there is no point in hiding the fact that Stephens' potential has been actualized.

"I think I have a pretty good shot," Stephens said. "If I don't make that, then shame on me."

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