It seems Sloane Stephens can’t stop getting asked about Serena Williams, which means she can’t stop talking about Serena Williams.
In a story in this week’s issue of TIME magazine called Serena’s Heir: Sloane Stephens might be America’s next great tennis star, Stephens said Williams plays mind games to try to intimidate her opponents. Stephens referenced their first career meeting, in the Brisbane International quarterfinals in January, when Williams was demonstrably loud with her “come ons” and fist pumps. Stephens told TIME in late February that it’s all part of Williams’ intimidation strategy.
“That’s insane,” Stephens says. “Just intimidation. That’s just what happened. That’s what she does. She scares people.” At the press conference after Stephens dumped Williams out of the Oz [Australian Open], Williams referred to Stephens as “my opponent” and called her a “good player” but took no pains to praise her. Stephens calls such tactics mind games. “I would never do that to anyone,” she says. “So I don’t understand how some people do the things they do. That’s life. What can you do? You can’t change that. She is who she is, so you just move on.”
A Williams-Stephens rivalry could be captivating — a matchup of candid, powerful players. The “mind games” just add to the tension. Williams, 31 and the world No. 1, is doing her part. Stephens has a lot to prove, and even if she sharpens her focus, she is preaching patience. “When it’s supposed to happen, it will,” Stephens says while finishing her sushi. “You can’t rush it. You can’t rush Serena out.” She has one eye on her phone as she’s talking, itching to get out of there. An afternoon of training — and texting — beckons. “Just wait for it.”
Williams won the Brisbane quarterfinal 6-4, 6-3. During the match, Stephens told her coach, Troy Hahn, that the fist pumps and come-ons were “so disrespectful.” At the time, it seemed like an awkward joke to break the tension during a coaching timeout. As it turns out, it really did get under Stephens’ skin.
This week’s issue of TIME hits newsstands Friday. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.