Sloane Stephens’s Brilliant Run at the U.S. Open
Via The New Yorker
On August 1st, after her first-round loss at the Citi Open, in Washington, which was her second straight defeat after coming back from a foot injury that had sidelined her for nearly a year, Sloane Stephens sat in front of the press and said, “Eventually, I will beat someone.”
Stephens has always been quick with the quips, and she said it with a smile. Of course, the wins would come. She was one of the most gifted women in the game, a player of extraordinary athleticism, with smooth, steady strokes and an ability to generate fluid power at will on either side of the ball. For years, she had been touted as a future star. Still, her words underscored the challenges she faced. It had been more than a year since she had won a match. She had finished 2016 with four losses in a row, before shutting down her season with that foot injury—later diagnosed as a stress fracture that required surgery. At the end of July, her world ranking was No. 957. Normally agile and quick, she had trouble running. But perhaps the biggest question that hung over her—the question that has followed her for years—concerned her motivation and resolve.
Less than six weeks later, Stephens won the U.S. Open title, beating another American, Madison Keys, 6–3, 6–0. The comeback was impressive generally, but her performance in the last two rounds was especially so. Her third set against Venus Williams featured some of the highest-quality tennis of the year, and Stephens’s brilliance only increased as the pressure grew. Her shots were outstanding, but she didn’t reach: she played perfectly within herself. Which is not to say that she played it safe, as she sometimes does. Her game is built on her movement and her ability to get back every hard shot with a good margin over the net. Her replies were controlled and hit with purpose, but, given her chances, she took them, ending long rallies with a backhand whipped up the line or a finessing short ball around the net. At 5–5, she broke Williams at love, assuredly held serve, and then carried that level into the final.
Her match against Keys was anticlimactic, especially considering how exciting the women’s tournament had been as a whole, from the thrilling first round match between Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep through the all-American semifinals. Keys, like Stephens, has long been known to have extraordinary promise, and, again like Stephens, has struggled with injury. But they have very different games. Keys’s approach is predicated on power. When she is swinging freely, few players can hit with her. But she began the match nervy and pressing, and, within a few games, her forehand—her indispensable shot—had broken down. Stephens only needed to keep the ball in the court. She did more than enough. Stephens finished with just six unforced errors. Keys had thirty.
At the end of the match, the two players met at the net for the traditional handshake, and instead embraced each other long and hard. Keys was in tears. Stephens held her, whispered in her ear, sat down with her. Soon, they were laughing.
Five years ago, on the eve of the U.S. Open, I spent some time with Stephens, wondering whether the nineteen-year-old who had been tipped for greatness would embrace her position or flame out. There was no doubt about the promise: the following year, she would upset Serena Williams, on a run to the semifinals at the Australian Open, and then make the quarter-finals of Wimbledon. But what both impressed and startled me about that afternoon in Flushing in 2012 was the insistence with which she tried to convince me how “normal” her life was.
It was obvious, of course, that her life was not normal—and soon it seemed that her unusual life was perhaps not what she wanted it to be. Her results on the tour did not keep pace with her success at the slams. Her footwork was suspect; her shoulders would slump; her magnetic smile would be obscured by a storm cell of clouds. She would play passively or press too hard, and then face the media—which was quick to make much of her impolitic comments—with a scowl. She told the Times last week that, well before she injured her foot, she was burned out. “It really wasn’t fun, it wasn’t enjoyable,” Stephens said. “When someone says, ‘Just have fun, enjoy it,’ at that time in 2013, I’d say: ‘You’re crazy! This is not fun, this is stressful, this is prize money, this is ranking, this is you’re-the-only-young-American, this is Oh-my-God-you-beat-Serena.’ There were just so many things happening that I couldn’t really stop.” She resented, she said, the fact that she missed birthdays and baby showers.
The injury gave her time for holidays and soccer games, for her grandparents and boyfriend. She actually did get to live a normal life for a while. Since she’s come back, she seems to have found some balance, on and off the court. She has been playing with the kind of freedom—a mix of confident steadiness and inventiveness—that suggests she’s enjoying herself. Instead of automatically retreating to the back of the court, she has stepped forward when the ball has called for it. She’s able to withstand rallies, but also to hit shots on the rise. She has been light on her feet. And why not? She hasn’t lost to a player outside the top five on hardcourts all summer.
Eventually, she will lose to someone. The pressure is back now, and it will only grow. But Stephens is not nineteen any more. She is twenty-four years old. She knows that the road ahead is long. “Of course there’s difficult moments, and I’m sure after this there will be a lot of difficult moments,” she told the Times. “Continuing to play more tournaments, going to China—there are going to be struggle moments. But if you keep a good attitude, it will all eventually come together.” Where things lead from here, who knows. Her game has room to grow. But she is off to an extraordinary start.
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