US Open champ Sloane Stephens has shown she has what it takes
NEW YORK — Like all people, Sloane Stephens has a place she most likes to be, her “happy place.” Perhaps surprisingly, that place isn’t a restaurant, a resort island or an upscale boutique in a Southern California shopping center.
“I guess my happy place would be at home, in my bed, eating takeout with the TV on,” Stephens said late Saturday night after putting on one of the most impressive performances any first-time Grand Slam finalist has ever produced. “I just love that, watching a movie in PJs in my bed with the fireplace on.”
Her choice points toward an aspect of Stephens’ character that is easy to miss, given her charisma, quick wit and immersion in pop culture. She’s comfortable with herself, keeping her own counsel the way she did when she sequestered herself in her New York hotel room on Friday, the day before she dueled with Madison Keys in Arthur Ashe Stadium for the US Open title.
“I just had a long time to think about the final,” Stephens said, adding that she didn’t even want to chat with friends because they would want to talk about the pending match. “I was like, ‘Just let me sit here and do nothing.'”
Doing nothing helped her achieve perhaps the hardest thing someone in her shoes, a first-time Grand Slam finalist, could be asked to accomplish. She brought her A-game and played a radiant match, oblivious to all distractions while keeping the inescapable nerves on a very short leash.
Her 22-year-old opponent and bestie, Keys, was unable to match Stephens’ composure and played poorly. Still, Stephens made a grand total of just six unforced errors in her 6-3, 6-0 victory. It raised the possibility that Stephens, 24, has become one of those ultra-rare athletes who thrives on the pressure created by major occasions.
Ironically, Stephens has lived mostly with a reputation as an underperformer who might never live up to the promise she showed in 2013, when she upset Serena Williams and made the semifinals of the Australian Open. She was 19 years old at the time, clearly ill-prepared for the limelight and all that came with it.
It turns out that the 2016 foot surgery that kept her off the tour for almost a full year, until this past July, gave her a chance to hit the reset button on her career. “I don’t know if I have arrived, or already arrived, or been arrived,” she said of her status. “I don’t know, but I do know I am a US Open champion.”
It’s a good time to be a newly minted elite player on the WTA Tour. The pecking order is unsettled to the extent that it sometimes seems that reaching the very top of the rankings has become some kind of prank. Those who have been there lately have been knocked off the perch like clowns at a county fair dunk tank.
Angelique Kerber had a marvelous year in 2016 to take the top spot from Serena Williams. But Kerber’s record this year is comparatively dismal. Succumbing to the pressure of living with a target on her back, Kerber hasn’t won a title and has slipped to No. 14.
Karolina Pliskova finally won a protracted race with Simona Halep and others to reach No. 1, but the accomplishment had a whiff of default about it. Pliskova has yet to win a major title. Eight women entered the US Open with a shot at emerging with the top ranking. It ultimately fell into the lap of Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza, who, perhaps fittingly, became No. 1 after losing in the fourth round at Flushing Meadows.
Great opportunity awaits Stephens in the coming weeks and months, but just how she will handle her new status remains to be seen. “I’ll try to keep everything the same as it is now,” she said. “But I know there will be more responsibilities, and there are always struggles. It’s added a lot more to my life, but when something like this happens it’s never easy.”
Stephens’ history as a player who was in denial about the pressure she felt may be valuable to her moving forward. True, she didn’t win her first WTA title until 2015 and still has just five. But she has an impressive history as a contender at majors. In addition to her US Open championship, she’s been to the fourth round at the French Open (four times), the Australian Open semifinals and the Wimbledon quarters.
That’s fine work for a 24-year-old, given that Kerber was 28 when she won her first major and Pliskova, having backed into the No. 1 ranking earlier this summer, is 25. Roger Federer was something of a late bloomer as well, almost 22 when he bagged his first major.
The landscape of the WTA is rapidly changing, and Stephens’ main rivals down the road are likely to be players such as Keys, Muguruza, Pliskova, Halep, Jelena Ostapenko and Elina Svitolina. In that group, only Halep and Pliskova are older than Stephens.
“Obviously, a lot of players are coming through now,” Stephens said. “The No. 1 ranking is changing often. I’m aware of that. But since I started this comeback, all I’ve been thinking about was what I’m doing on the court.”
Stephens says she doesn’t feel any “different” after her massive win than she did before it. She’s learned enough about pressure to try to keep it at arm’s length. As “cool” as it is to be US Open champion, she said, in her mind’s eye she’s still working her way back, trying to improve on her ranking of a month-and-a-half ago, No. 957. She’s up to No. 17 now.
“I’m just going to keep going with that and ride that wave for as long as I can,” she promised.
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