By Ros Satar
- Sloane Stephens def. Madison Keys  6-3 6-0
- From surgery and no weight-bearing on her foot to lifting the US Open title
- Views it that she is still on her comeback
NEW YORK, USA – Sloane Stephens came full circle on Saturday as she completed one of the most successful come-back stories of the year, beating close friend and compatriot Madison Keys for the US Open title.
In the lead up to the match, a lot of digging into facts and figures bore out that Sloane Stephens, who catapulted herself to the front of tennis observers’ consciousness when as a 19-year-old she beat Serena Williams on the way to the Australian Open semi-final. Back then she was touted as the next best thing for American women’s tennis, but it would be another couple of years before she would even lift her own title.
The journey for both Stephens and indeed Madison Keys, who had also battled with surgeries this year was just one of many remarkable stories, but it all came down to who could handle the occasion better.
The start of the match saw comfortable holds for both to settle the nerves, but the first strike went to Stephens efficiently taking the first break point chance that came her way. Stephens had to work for the second break to take the first set, but converting on her second set point changed the balance.
As the frustration started to mount for Keys, who would end up on the wrong end of a run of eight games in a row in the end for Stephens, it was not until the fifth game in the second set that maybe the pendulum looked to swing more to the younger American. Her first break point chances of the match looked to save her blushes, but Stephens’ resolve was stronger as she denied her compatriot even that.
Fittingly though Keys fought to the end, saving two match points before finally the unforced errors which had mounted since the first ball was struck did for her. Sharing a long and heartfelt embrace at the net, Keys relinquished the stage to Stephens, whose emotions poured out when she went up into the stands to celebrate with her team, including her mother.
Day 1 walking… EXCITED!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/47PReC1EGT
— Sloane Stephens (@SloaneStephens) April 18, 2017
Remembering a brash teenager who remarked to her coach in Brisbane earlier that year that Serena’s shouts of ‘Come-On’ in points had been ‘so disrespectful,’ before she backed up that quarter-final in the season opener to beating Williams on her way to her first Slam semi-final in Melbourne – there was no doubt the girl had talent.
Yet results are measured by hardware, but it is worth remembering she is now 5-0 in finals! After reaching the third round of Wimbledon last year, and qualified for the Rio Olympics but she bounced out in the first rounds of Washington, Montreal and Rio before having to withdraw from the US Open with a right foot stress fracture. She had surgery in January, and was unable to put pressure through her foot for 16 weeks, and was only free of the walking boot towards the end of spring.
Her comeback was slow, losing in the first round of Wimbledon and in Washington, before things began to click – she reached the semi-final of the two back-to-back Premier events in Toronto and Cincinnati, and is still is on a streak of 15 wins out of her last 17 matches.
There has also been an element of more on-court maturity about Stephens – her work with coach Kamau Murray has paid dividends along with the perspective that comes with a long injury lay off and the joy of just getting back to play tennis again, as she explained in her post-final press conference.
“I had surgery. I was non-weight-bearing for 16 weeks, so I couldn’t walk, put no pressure on my foot. I had on a peg leg, on crutches. Yeah, I don’t think — there is no positive to not being able to walk and not being on one leg. That’s not fun for anyone.
“So I think I took it all in stride and I just tried to stay as positive as I could, knowing that one day I’d be playing again and things were going to be better. But that’s all I really had to look forward to was just being able to get on the court again.”
When she was reminded after winning the quarter-finals that in just four days she could be the new US Open champion, she joked about just how crazy that sounded after the last 11 months, but as we often see with athletes returning from heavy injuries, the change in the perspective maybe frees them up to play better.
Stephens agreed, saying: “If anything, I’m still working my way back. I mean I just happen to be — my ranking is a little higher, but if you think about it, five weeks ago, I was like, 900-and-something, wasn’t really a threat. I’m just going to keep going with that and ride that wave for as long as I can.”
With a projected return into the Top 20, Stephens has a lot to consider with the Asian swing around the corner.
“I was, like, literally horrified I wasn’t going to be able to get into a lot of tournaments. Now my ranking is higher than my protected ranking. So that changes things a little bit.
“I’m going to be, like, seeded at tournaments again. I don’t know. It’s so exciting, right? How things change so quickly.”
We have seen over the past two years what the pressure of winning a maiden Slam can do. While Angelique Kerber managed to book-end 2016 with two titles, her struggles since then have been challenging. The same could be said of Garbiñe Muguruza, who seemed almost relieved when the questions stopped about her preparing to defend her French Open crown, only for her to win Wimbledon, and somehow click into great form leading into the US Open.
So how would the bubble Stephens handle that expectation and desire to be the centre of attention once more as a Slam champion?
“Of course, Girl. Did you see that check that lady handed me? (Laughter.) Like, yes. Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will. Man. So, yes, definitely.”
The WTA tour continues on 11 September in Quebec City & Tokyo
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