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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Sloane Stephens, Serena Williams have had an up-and-down relationship

Sloane Stephens returns the ball during her women's

Sloane Stephens returns the ball during her women's singles second-round match against Olga Govortsova on Day 4 of the U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Thursday in Flushing Meadows. Credit: Getty Images/Al Bello

From the moment the U.S. Open women’s draw came out, this is the matchup everyone circled.

Sloane Stephens and Serena Williams will go head-to-head in the third round of the U.S. Open Saturday, playing each other for the first time in five years.

The relationship between the two players, at least the way it has been depicted in the media, has morphed over the years from mentor-mentee to frenemies to respected competitors. The match could add a new chapter as Stephens is a tough out and there is much at stake for Williams as she attempts to win a record 24th Grand Slam.

Williams, the tournament’s No. 2 seed, realizes what kind of obstacle Stevens presents.

“She is such a good player,” Williams said of Stephens on Thursday after a 6-2, 6-4 win over Margarita Gasparyan of Russia. “ “She’s so smooth and she looks like she’s not taking a lot of energy, and then bam there’s five winners.

“She has obviously won here before and she’s beaten me before, so she knows how to play well. So yeah, it’s not easy.”

Williams has played Stephens six times over the course of her career and has only lost once. This will be their second meeting in the U.S. Open. Williams defeated Stephens, 6-4, 6-1, in the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 2013.

Earlier that year, Stephens scored the only win of her career over Williams when the then 19-year-old upset the third-ranked Williams in three sets in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.

Much drama ensued after that win as Stephens detailed in ESPN the magazine how their relationship had fallen apart since the win, adding that when she was 12 years old Williams had blown her off three times when she tried to get an autograph on a poster.

Stephens later apologized on Twitter. Now, as a 27-year-old who has experienced both the highs and lows of competing on the tour, Stephens has nothing but respect for Williams and what she is trying to accomplish.

Stephens’ only Grand Slam win came in Flushing Meadows in 2017 when she defeated close friend Madison Keys in the U.S. Open finals. Williams was taking a break from tennis at the time after the birth of her daughter and it appeared as if Stephens’ star was on the ascension.

Since then, Stephens, currently ranked 39th in the world, has failed to live up to her early promise. She has reached only one more Grand Slam final, losing to Simona Halep in the 2018 French Open, and won only one tournament, the 2018 Miami Open. She has lost four first-round matches, including one at the Australian Open this year.

Williams, meanwhile, has not won a Grand Slam since returning from pregnancy leave in 2018. But she has reached the finals four times, losing to Angelique Kerber, Naomi Osaka, Halep and Bianca Andreescu.

Stephens knows what kind of career-reviving chance it is for her to face Williams in the third round — even if there are only a handful of people in the stands watching because of the pandemic.

“I know if there were fans it would be so lit, and I’m kind of sad that we’re not playing in front of fans because it would be so fun,” Stephens said. “Obviously with no fans the atmosphere won’t be as big, but obviously it’s a big opportunity to play against the greatest player in the world.”

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