Life is awful, isn’t it? That’s what Sloane Stephens might well have been thinking earlier this year, when she was hobbling along in a cast with a peg leg.
After all, in 2013 she set off on a magical tour of Australia, where she beat Serena Williams and reached the semis. Life was sweet. But it took years for her to win her first tournament. Her rivals owned the big titles of the game, and she suffered a foot injury and was sidelined for much of last year.
“Sure, I’ve made $4 million in my career and been on billboards and magazine covers, but now I have a triple-digit ranking, and I was bounced out of Wimbledon in the first round,” Sloane may have been saying to herself.
“But hold on,” she eventually thought. “I’m an athlete, the daughter of an All-American swimmer and a first-round NFL pick. That’s not too shabby. My grandmother fawns over me. And you know what? I hit a yellow ball over a net to make a living.”
Sloane’s self-talk kicked in. And so did her considerable forehand and flash-free speed. She soon was displaying her athleticism. She swept to the semis in Toronto and Cincinnati with impressive wins over Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber. Here at the US Open, she beat the No. 11 seed, 2014 Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova, en route to the quarters, where she faced yet another Latvian wonder, little Anastasija Sevastova. But after claiming the first set, Stephens faltered. Sevastova’s best-in-the game drop shots and her speed and consistency kicked in as the Latvian won the second set and went up a break in the third.
But if any trait defines Sloane Stephens 2.0, it’s a newly strong depth of resolve in the face of challenge. Sevastova was getting balls back, but Sloane can play that game too, and in the latter stages of the match, she played it better. Drawing even and then leading the way into a decisive tiebreak, she seized opportunities in cat-and mouse rallies and patiently waited for down-the-line errors from her opponent. In the end, she smacked a down-the-line backhand of her own – a winner – to seal a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (4) win and secure her first Slam semifinal appearance in more than four years.
In what some are calling the year of the comeback, Sloane forged her own – a match-length one against the troublesome Sevastova (just ask Maria Sharapova), and a larger one that involved overcoming a major injury and rediscovering, perhaps even redefining, her passion for the game. “Playing tennis is an amazing thing and I’m lucky that I’m able to play a sport for a living,” she said after the match. “I really love playing tennis.
“The injury] was just kind of eye-opening. When I wasn’t playing, of course, I loved my time off, but when I got back to playing tennis, it was, ‘This is where I want to be. This is what I love doing.’ Over time it [became], ‘This is fun. This is great, actually.’”