There’s a chill in the air as Serena Williams rallies to win

Serena Williams defeated Sloane Stephens in a fourth-round match at the BNP Paribas Open, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-2.
Serena Williams defeated Sloane Stephens in a fourth-round match at the BNP Paribas Open, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-2.
(Julian Finney / Getty Images)

There is an old Midwest expression that sums up Tuesday’s fourth-round tennis match at Indian Wells between Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens. It says, all the icicles weren’t on the rain gutters.

What the near-capacity crowd in the main stadium at the BNP Paribas Open was seeing was perhaps not exactly what it was getting.

Williams and Stephens have some history, and it isn’t about pajama parties or girls’ nights out.


In the quarterfinals of the 2013 Australian Open, up-and-coming Stephens, who had been the subject of great praise by from Williams as both a future American star and future black star, beat Williams in a three-setter.

A few months later, Stephens gave an interview to ESPN the Magazine, in which she said that Williams had snubbed her since that day and even had done one of those unforgivable things among the younger generation. She had unfollowed her on Twitter.

Stephens also said in the article, “She’s so friendly, so this and that … that’s not reality.”

After the article hit the newsstands, Stephens said she had been tricked by the reporter and thought that part was off the record. The reporter countered that she had asked if it were OK to turn on her tape recorder and Stephens had said yes, and had even reminded her to turn it off when a phone call came in during their lunch.

It didn’t end there. Stephens was photographed in the stands at the 2014 Australian Open, arms thrust into the air, appearing to celebrate Ana Ivanovic’s upset victory over Williams. Stephens said later that she was merely mocking the celebration of Ivanovic’s team.

Since then, the subject has been pretty much glossed over. An Agence France-Presse reporter asked Stephens, 21, before the tournament started, about where her relationship stood with Williams.


“We are colleagues,” Stephens said.

Williams, of course, was making her much-celebrated return to Indian Wells 14 years after a booing incident in the final, which she won, prompted her boycott.

So, with plenty of emotion floating around about that, losing the first set to Stephens in a tiebreaker could have pushed Williams to the brink of overload.

But her steely control over the next two sets answered that, and the 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-2 final score was not even that startling a result. Stephens is, indeed, a possible future star, and even though she has slumped from her best ranking of No. 11 in 2013, she still is No. 42 and has one of the more dangerous forehands in the women’s game.

She sought to characterize everything as normal, using the phrase she has learned to lean on for almost any hint of a question about her relationship with Williams: “She is No. 1 in the world.”

Williams had one set point in the first set and let that slip away. And Stephens still had a shot to win the match with Williams serving at 3-2 in the third. At 15-30, Stephens hit deep, approached and had a perfect put-away forehand volley floating her way. She netted it and Williams sailed home, ending the festivities.

The match, and the standoffish body language, ended with an exclamation point perhaps meant as a message.

Williams hit a 128-mph ace.

Direct discussions of this have pretty well become taboo. It has been made clear there will be no answers, certainly no honest ones. The closest attempts were to queries about the post-match handshake.

Williams: “I told her good job and keep up the good work.”

Stephens: “Good match. Good luck. The normal handshake. That was it.”

In the end, this match might have represented the coolest temperatures Indian Wells has ever seen.

Follow Bill Dwyre on Twitter @DwyreLATimes