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Stephens has conquered tougher challenges. She was close to her stepdad Sheldon Farrell, a business consultant who died of cancer in 2007. She took to the sport after watching him play recreational tennis near the family's Fresno, Calif., home. During Farrell's final days, Stephens' biological father, former NFL running back John Stephens, came back into Sloane's life. Sloane's mother Sybil Smith split with Stephens when their daughter was 18 months old, and Sloane hadn't spoken to him since. He was suffering from a degenerative bone disease; they bonded, but two years later, he was killed in an auto accident. "It was awful," says Smith, who has a master's degree from Harvard in counseling and consulting psychology. "I thought it would destroy her. I really did. She kept losing the things she loved."
But Stephens fought through her grief. "I feel like I'm already 55 and lived a whole life because I had been through all those things," she says. "I've definitely learned to handle myself better."
She showed her composure against Williams, who merely won Wimbledon, Olympic gold and the U.S. Open in 2012. Before their Australian Open match, media reports harped on Serena's supposed mentoring relationship with Stephens. The subtext: Since they're both black, they must be tight, right? "We're not besties," Stephens says with a laugh. "I would never message her, 'Oh, let's go to dinner,' anything like that." A few weeks before the Australian, Williams and Stephens played a match in Brisbane, which Williams won in straight sets. Williams' grunting and fist-pumping bothered Stephens. "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, 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."