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Challenger shows the nerve to be idol threat

''Regular person'' … meeting Serena Williams in the quarter-finals holds no fears for teenager Sloane Stephens.

''Regular person'' … meeting Serena Williams in the quarter-finals holds no fears for teenager Sloane Stephens. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

WHEN people ask Martina Navratilova (major singles titles: 18) how she would fare in a fantasy singles match against Serena Williams (major singles titles: 15, and mounting), she has a stock response. ‘‘I answer, ‘Well, do you think I could beat Justine Henin?’ And they say, ‘Oh yes’ and I say, ‘Well, Justine Henin beat Serena, so there’s your answer’,’’ she says.

‘‘You don’t have to be huge. I mean, I think I would be able to handle the pace. Serena has a harder time playing people who are fast, and I think I was pretty fast in my day, so I think I would be able to neutralise some of that power. If she has an unbelievable serving day, nobody beats her on that given day, but I think once I get the ball in play then I’m in good shape.’’

Which is a roundabout way of saying that: a) Navratilova believes Sloane Stephens has the speed to potentially trouble Williams in their all-American Australian Open quarter-final; but b) that if Williams serves at her best on the slightly faster 2013 version of Melbourne Park Plexicushion, then Stephens has as much chance of beating the title favourite as anyone else; and c) that is  pretty much none.

The 31-year-old champion and  19-year-old challenger first played in the opening week of the season in Brisbane, a match  a fired-up Williams won 6-4, 6-3 before declaring Stephens ‘‘can be the best in the world one day’’. It was also notable for the youngster’s claim  Williams had shown her ‘‘disrespect’’ with  loud bellows of ‘‘Come on’’. She later claimed to be joking, but it was an interesting aside.

Stephens, the 29th seed and soon-to-be No.2 American, is an unabashed admirer of the one-time idol she has come to know personally, and declared  their second clash ‘‘won’t be that  first-time, ‘Oh my God, I’m playing Serena’’’ Brisbane experience. ‘‘That’s kind of out of the window now. So that’s good. And then it will feel more of like a regular match instead of all the other  things to think about ... It’s still a tennis match, the court’s the same size, you’re still playing a regular person across the net.’’

Indeed, the pair’s  African-American heritage was the catalyst for their first encounter, a US Team Tennis exchange    recounted by Williams after her 6-2, 6-0 belting of Maria Kirilenko. ‘‘I saw her in the locker room. She was another black girl,’’ Williams recalled. ‘‘I was like, ‘Hey! ...  What up, girl’?’’

"She's been doing really amazing. I have a tough match, so we'll see" ... Serena Williams on Sloane Stephens, pictured.

"She's been doing really amazing. I have a tough match, so we'll see" ... Serena Williams on Sloane Stephens, pictured. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Yet if Williams claims to be unsure whether she is a mentor or just an example to the rising group of US women, the superstar who will reclaim the world’s top ranking if she wins this title is certain of something else. ‘‘I feel no responsibility. I doubt (Stephens) she has any expectations of me to be responsible for anything,’’ Williams said ahead of what will be her 35th grand slam quarter-final, and Stephens’s first.

‘‘Maybe she does. I don’t know. But I’m here to compete and do the best I can, as well as she.  She’s been doing really amazing.  I have a tough match, so we’ll see.’’

Or tough-ish, anyway. Lindsay Davenport, another grand dame of American tennis, sees a lot to like in Stephens’s game, but plenty  to admire about the five-time Open champion. ‘‘I think Serena is still the overwhelming favourite,’’ Davenport said. ‘‘She’s incredibly focused point in and point out and we didn’t see that five or six years  ago from Serena even when she was on top.’’

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