NEW YORK —“I had a peg leg and was in a brace for eleven months,” she told us. Early this summer, Sloane Stephens’ ranking had dipped to No. 934.
Her defeat of Serena Williams en route to the 2013 Australian Open semis was but a distant memory. For months, she hung out with her family. She couldn’t run until last May. She promptly lost her first two matches when she returned. She was worried – will my shots come back, will my speed return? But she knew she had fight.
Then, she started to win. She reached the semis in Toronto and Cincy and, amazingly, the unseeded Californian swept to the US Open semis.
But in the press room, seasoned reporters gathered and asked: does she really have championship mettle? Memories remained of Stephens having a ‘tude, a sense of entitlement. With young Sloane there was no shortage of swagger or sense of self-worth. She relished seeing herself on billboards and in magazine spreads. Then there was the time she got into a spat with Serena – it’s best not to do that.
Sloane told IT, “It would be absurd if I don’t win the French Open within a decade.” Later, she tossed her former coach, Paul Annacone, under the techno bus, saying he “didn’t know what he was doing…It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t know how to put on wi-fi or anything. So in Australia he had like a $2,000 phone bill…I’m like, that’s not ideal…He’s old, so it’s tough…He’s like, ‘What’s the password?’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God, help him.’”
Then there was the time she blasted Vika Azarenka in the groin with a shot, which prompted one writer to say, “Jimmy Connors would call that a bullseye.”
Sloane once told Elle Magazine, “I got the college experience without going to college. When my friends are like, ‘I’m going to class,’ I’m like, ‘I’m going to take a nap.'”
Mary Carillo described Stephens’ stoic demeanor as “a costume of casualness,” and then asked, “Is she trying to act cool? Or is she just not caring?” But it was none other than Connors’ son Brett who expressed some unsparing conventional wisdom: “She has the arrogance and whininess of a highly-touted ‘Next American Great.’ Now all she has to do is win something.”
Well, now, Sloane is poised to win what, along with Wimbledon, is the biggest title in our game. After all, time heals and life teaches. Being away from your trade, your way of life, and your passion is inevitably a major reality check.
Sloane had a core realization: “Playing tennis is an amazing thing – and I’m lucky that I’m able to play a sport for a living. I really love playing…It was eye-opening. I loved my time off, but when I got back to playing, it was where I wanted to be.
“But I did get to hang out with my family and see my little cousin’s soccer games and go to weddings and baby showers…My grandma had a stroke, so I spent a lot of time at home with my grandparents.”
Tonight was a time to see Sloane’s clean shots, her quicksilver speed, her dazzling defensive skills and her grit. She sprinted to a 6-1 first set win over Venus in just 24 minutes. Was Venus tired from playing two tough three-setters in a row? Was it the pressure of trying to reach her third final of the season, or was it that she was playing a much younger American?
Who knows? But Sloane knew one thing. She was playing Venus Williams, and the beloved elder of woman’s tennis wasn’t about to throw in the towel. Instead, Venus began to hit out, and unleashed groundies deep to the corners as she won the second set, 6-0.
This match was truly a tale of two sets. Or as Charles Dickens began his classic, A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of all times and the worst of all times.” A place in the US Open final would come down to one final set. “What’s going to win,” asked Chris Evert, “the fearlessness of youth or the experience of the elder?”
Williams had the momentum. And Venus, the woman who tells us that championships aren’t given to you, that you have to go out and grab them, was grabbing the match.
But Sloane has a new maturity. She said, “I guess because I’m just getting old, more calm…[I realize that] tennis is very situational. Once you realize that it’s not life or death out there, you can turn a tennis match around…I tried just not to get too down on myself. I knew obviously in the third set I would have to fight my tail off and get my racquet on every ball.”
And boy, did she. Despite a barrage of Williams blasts, Stephens sprinted, counter-punched and made life completely miserable for “our leader,” as Sloane described her. Williams had to run corner to corner.
Still, Venus twice scored critical breaks. Cliff Drysdale noted, “I like the look of pain on Sloane’s face. Too often [in the past] she didn’t care. But not tonight.”
It turned out that “bounce-back-ability” – Sloane’s favorite concept these days – came into play big-time. Never mind that Hawk-Eye gave Venus a big favor. Forget that Venus came within just two points of victory. Stephens didn’t panic. Instead, she rebuffed Williams’ considerable punches. Sprint and scamper – here was astounding defensive brilliance at its best.
Plus, Sloane out-dueled her foe in clever cat-and-mouse points. Her inventive flicks and spontaneous shots of wonder (including a deft “lob thingy,” as she described it) wore down the 37-year-old. Venus had no more punches. Sloane’s soft hands, fine forehand and effortless speed – which sometimes seems so nonchalant – prevailed, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5. Just 33 days ago, the 24-year-old Californian was ranked No. 934. Now she’s headed to the US Open final, where she’ll face Madison Keys.
So what has been the key to Sloane’s meteoric turnaround?
She said, “If you work really hard, if you fight your way through and fight your way back, you can make some things happen for yourself. When I came back from my injury, I didn’t have all of my tools…The only thing I had to rely on was my fight – and making sure every time I was on the court I gave my all…[I’ve learned that] I’m a real fighter, that I have a lot of grit. Surprising.”
Sloane’s coach Kamau Murray had a different take. He told IT, “Well, I’m from the south side of Chicago. She’s spent some time there. I think that attitude, that environment, has an effect on people. She spent a lot of time around the kids in my program, who are a lot less fortunate than her. That had an impact.”
Clearly something has taken Stephens to a new place. In Saturday’s final, she will face her close friend Madison Keys, who’s had two wrist surgeries this year. It will be the first Slam final with two African-Americans not named Williams. And it will be a battle of two young players who are both coming back from surgery. Keys noted that she and Sloane have another thing in common: “We’ve shown that we love the game and will do anything we have to, to come back.”
Speaking of coming back, American tennis is back (if it ever went away). We don’t know who will win Saturday. We just know it will be an American.