Sloane Stephens is on top of the tennis world a little more than a year from when she hit bottom.
The task for Stephens, the newly minted 2017 U.S. Open women’s singles champion who grew up in Fresno, now will be to follow up her breakthrough.
“There’s always going to be struggles. I’m adding a lot more to my life. And I’m sure there’ll be some ups and downs and some tough times, because it’s never easy when something like this happens. Not saying it’s a bad thing; just a lot more on a person,” Stephens said. “So I’m actually looking forward to it. Should be a challenging, but super-fun, next couple of months, next couple of years.”
Stephens and her mother, All-American swimmer Sybil Smith, left Fresno when Stephens was 10 to pursue a tennis career starting at an academy in Florida.
At 19, she beat Serena Williams to reach the 2013 Australian Open semifinals, but hadn’t put together a run quite like this, winning 15 of her past 17 matches and getting to a Grand Slam final for the first time. Stephens was out of action from August 2016 because of what turned out to be a stress fracture in her left foot , had surgery in January once it was properly diagnosed, and returned to the tour at Wimbledon in July.
Her ranking was outside the top 900 a month ago but is now at No. 17 after beating Madison Keys 6-3, 6-0 in Saturday’s final. She has a style predicated on defense, using her speed to track down opponents’ shots that against many others would be point-ending winners, and picks her spots to attack judiciously.
Asked whether she might want to become more aggressive in matches, Stephens replied, deadpan: “I think my game is OK.”
She laughed a bit and continued: “I think that I don’t need to change anything, because if I can play the way I’m playing and win a Grand Slam, I don’t think there needs to be any discussion about it.”
When a reporter mentioned to Stephens she made only six unforced errors in the final, 24 fewer than Keys. Stephens asked, incredulously: “I made six unforced errors in the whole match?”
Told that was, indeed, correct, she smacked the table with her left palm and exclaimed: “Shut the front door! I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before. Oh, my God. That’s a stat!”
Another example of her vivacious personality: When a reporter wondered whether a first major championship gave Stephens a hunger to get another, this was the answer: “Of course, girl. Did you see that check that lady handed me?! Like, yes. Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will.”
As for her place in the game, Stephens said: “I don’t know if I have ‘arrived’ or ‘already arrived,’ ‘been arrived.’ I don’t know, but I do know I’m a U.S. Open champion. So whatever that means to you.”
The past two weeks, and the past several months, should delight tennis fans with thoughts of 2018, when Serena Williams is expected to return to action after having a baby and join quite a cast. In addition to Williams’ older sister Venus, rejuvenated at age 37, there is now a young group of emerging Americans – Stephens, 24, Keys, 22, and U.S. Open semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe, 25 – along with Garbine Muguruza, 23, the Wimbledon champion who made her debut at No. 1 in the rankings on Monday, and Jelena Ostapenko, 20, the French Open champ.