Of rivalries and rumors

So for all the reported talk, the match didn't turn out to be much to speak of. 

Serena Williams summarily dispatched Sloane Stephens in the fourth round of the U.S. Open on Sunday, winning 6-4, 6-1. The first set was a display of shot-making and powerful serving from both players. The second set was not. 

Stephens has undeniable potential and a lethal forehand. She can handle Serena's pace and create offense off shots other players would be lucky to get to. 

She also has inexplicable concentration lapses and faulty footwork on key points, and her mental makeup is still a work in progress. 

I saw both women in action at the Fed Cup in Delray Beach in April. Stephens lost in three sets to Swede Sofia Arvidsson in the opening match. Serena evened things with a 6-2, 6-2 victory against Johanna Larsson.

Stephens grew visibly frustrated in her match, her body language betraying her dissatisfaction with her shots and indicating, as the match went on, her lack of desire to be playing it. Serena was laser-locked in, running down everything and firing serves at Larsson like the Swede had punched her puppy. 

The next day, Stephens was supposed to play the deciding singles match, but instead, captain Mary Joe Fernandez turned to Venus Williams, who delivered.

Fernandez was diplomatic, saying Stephens was "finding her way back with her confidence." The confidence that was on display, lest we've forgotten, when Stephens upset Serena in January's Australian Open quarterfinals.  

Since that match, the two players' relationship has been widely scrutinized. Serena was quoted in a less-than-flattering Rolling Stone article as saying she was no mentor to Stephens, whereas Stephens claimed the victory in Australia made her persona non grata to Williams. 

"People should know," Stephens told ESPN The Magazine. "They think she's so friendly and she's so this and she's so that -- no, that's not reality! You don't unfollow someone on Twitter, delete them off of BlackBerry Messenger. I mean, what for? Why?"

At the U.S. Open, the two have been cordial, with Serena heaping on enough praise to make Lou Holtz blush, admiring Stephens' "smooth" game and describing the "honor" of watching her play. All that is probably as genuine as Serena's pre-match tunnel interview (an exercise in broadcast futility that makes sideline reporting look Pulitzer-worthy), when she told Fernandez how pleased she is for the new generation of American tennis and how she wishes the younger players well. 

Yeah, in like five years, when she's done kicking their asses. 

Untroubled by the back injury that hampered her in Melbourne, Serena weathered Stephens' best shots in the first set, including the first break of Williams' serve in 24 games at the Open. She then got an early break and ran away with the second set, leaving no doubt as to the immediate future of this particular rivalry.

I, for one, hope that both players can prosper. American tennis needs stars, and they don't have to be best friends. In fact, that's kind of weird, to be expected to silently encourage your opponent while doing everything in your power to send her packing. Especially for someone like Serena, whose ferocious competitiveness is what has often defined her career and produced some of her biggest wins. 

In a bigger picture, though, I also hope the sniping - as admittedly entertaining as it can be - stops. It's a shame that two women with jaw-dropping athletic ability and eye-popping talent can be reduced in popular media to two squabbling females, as though they reached for the same shoe at Prada. Let's drum up interest in the already compelling stories - Serena's resurgent dominance and GOAT serve, Stephens' aforementioned forehand and esteemed athletic lineage - without resorting to petty tabloid material.

I want to watch these women play many more sets like the first one today. And if there's going to be any bitch-slapping, I want it done with a racket.