It was the kiss of death. Just as when the chairman of a struggling football club gives his full backing to the manager, you know that the manager will be out of a job by the end of the week, so when Serena Williams suggested that, in her absence, Sloane Stephens could win the Wimbledon title, you just knew that poor Sloane’s days were numbered.
So it was that the newly anointed champion-in-waiting and No.17 seed was sploshed 6-4, 7-5 by Marion Bartoli. And to continue the football theme, she was sploshed in a game of two halves. There was the first half, a nip-and-tuck, nine-and-three-quarter games where Stephens was serving well in patches but Bartoli was serving a little better and then there was the rest of the match, that bizarre set and a couple of points where neither woman could hold serve for love nor money. As for half-time – that was a two-and-a-half hour rain delay.
Now, maybe Serena was serious in her assumption that the 20-year-old from Florida could, indeed, lift the Venus Rosewater Dish but, then again, maybe she was messing with Sloane’s head. The two women have what we Brits call “previous” and earlier this year had a very public spat. Stephens beat the world No.1 in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open and was, unsurprisingly, on top of the world after that. And Serena, equally unsurprisingly, wasn’t.
But then the young pretender had a run of bad results and, in the middle of this, she announced in a magazine interview that Serena had not spoken to her since they both left Melbourne. And – shock, horror – she claimed that Serena had unfollowed her on Twitter and unfriended her on Facebook. It was a storm in a teacup but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Serena, for a spot of fun, might have piled a little extra pressure on young Sloane’s shoulders by tipping her for success this week.
Whatever was going through her head as she walked back on court after the rain delay, it was what was running through her racket that was causing the problems. Standing two points from 5-5 in the first set or, looking on the downside, two points away from losing the set, she won only one of the next nine points and in no time found herself a set and 2-0 down. That was when it all got very silly indeed.
The second set consisted of 12 games of which nine were breaks of serve. Bartoli got her nose in front by holding in the opening game but after that, the set disintegrated into a comedy of errors. By the time they had exchanged breaks of serve eight times, our American heroine had to hold to stay in the match. At that stage, she had only won one point on her own serve in the 41 minutes they had been back on court. The heart pounded, the pulse raced but, finally, she did it: Stephens held serve. Hurrah. Four whole points won to make it 5-5. Alas, that was as far as she got because two games, later she was on her way home.
“I think my serve really just let me down in the second set,” Stephens said. “It's definitely tough, but you just got to get better, learn from it, and move on. I think, for me, I just have to keep working hard. I know where I want to be and I know where I want to get to in the end. So I think it may not happen now, but as I work hard and I get older, I guess, it will hopefully eventually come.”
So, did she think she could win Wimbledon one day? “Yeah, I'm going to try,” she said. “Going to try hard.”
And if no one famous tips her for the title, she might just stand a chance.
20:08It brings me no pleasure but it's time to bring the curtain down for another year. Seemed somehow appropriate to leave the last word to Roger Federer. Thanks a billion for reading. What a fortnight, what a final, fast forward to 2015 please...
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