The American tennis establishment — its media, its retired players, its anxiety-ridden conscience — has long known what it had in Sloane Stephens: a tenacious competitor with blinding baseline-to-net quickness, a heavy, pancake-flat forehand and an affably-outsized personality that far too often evades its prized tennis prodigies.
But in order for Stephens to make the transition from hopeful to headliner, she needed a marquee win on the world’s biggest tennis stage. And for all of the women’s games great players, Li Na, Victoria Azarenka or Caroline Wozniacki would simply not do.
Make no mistake: Sloane Stephens needed to beat Serena Williams. In a late-round battle in Paris, Flushing, London or Melbourne. An epic three-setter? Icing on the cake. And that is exactly what happened on Wednesday in Melbourne (and on Tuesday night in the United States) in front of a rapt worldwide audience: Stephens bested Serena Williams in exhilarating fashion, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.
Stephens had just under 18,000 followers before she took the court at Rod Laver Arena. On Wednesday morning, she was hovering around 44,000 and counting. She also received congratulatory tweets from John Legend, Shaquille O’Neal, Dirk Nowitzki, Rudy Gay and Jozy Altidore. Hers was the top story on ESPN.com and Yahoo! Sports, and the Sydney-based newspaper, The Australian, ran a story headlined, “Tennis’s new poster girl.â€ Post match, the reporter alluded to a poster she had of Serena in her bedroom. Answering if she’d ever thought she’d beat Serena to reach her first semifinal, Stephens wept.
“This is so crazy, oh my goodness, but I think I’ll put a poster of myself now.â€
There will be plenty of posters to choose from. The women’s game, desperate for its next great American star, has it now, and for the 19-year-old, the possibilities seem endless. The same megawatt smile Stephens flashed again and again Wednesday is the envy of brand marketers everywhere. Already, Under Armour, which could never have imagined its good fortune, is seeking ways to capitalize on Stephens’ performance, but is holding its cards close to the vest. Stephens reportedly told The Wall Street Journal her dream endorsements would be Rolex and Ford — if true, both brands would be foolish not to call.
AJ Maestas, president of Navigate Research, says earning potential and winning are inextricably linked.
“[Oncourt] performance is the most highly correlated variable and most important factor towards earning money,” he said recently.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Under Armour hadn’t featured her on its homepage, and it was unclear when or if it had plans to do so.
That’s partially why it’s still early to project the financial impact of Stephens’ performance. For a similar comparison you might consider the 21-year-old American Melanie Oudin, who reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 2009 at 17. Oudin has since struggled mightily with her game, but her emergence four years ago had enough currency for her to earn $3 million in endorsements. Those brands included American Express, AirTran Airways and Virgin Mobile.
Oudin, however, did not defeat Williams, a player with 15 Grand Slam titles, and one that many consider to be the greatest women’s player of all time. It’s what makes Stephens’ triumph a game-changer.
The Marketing Arm, which provides brands with consumer affinity and perceptions of athletes and celebrities, kindly provided newly surveyed numbers for Stephens on the Davie-Brown Index, which measures a celebrity’s marketability.
- Endorsement: 585th (comps: Matt Kemp, Taylor Lautner, Ty Burrell, Queen Latifah, Curtis Granderson, Jeremy Lin)
- Aspiration 434th (comps: Ray Rice, Mark Wahlberg, Maria Menounos, CC Sabathia, Alicia Keys)
- Breakthrough 587th (comps: Clay Matthews, Danica Patrick, Tom Hardy, Michael B. Jordan)
- Influence 730th (comps: Curtis Granderson, Queen Latifah, Dwight Howard, Ed Helms, Tyra Banks)
Regardless of what she does the rest of the way, you can expect Stephens, who turns 20 in March, to make the rounds of all the major late night talk shows. Her immediate future and tennis schedule will be dissected ad nauseum. And you can rest assured that she will soon be visiting 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
After all, an American woman is in the semifinal of a Grand Slam — and that just doesn’t happen very often.