Like a Rolling Sloane: Can Stephens recapture US Open spirit in 2018?

by: Steve Tignor | January 08, 2018

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After losing the first two matches she played in 2017, Stephens went on a 15–2 summer run that culminated in her first Grand Slam title at the US Open. (AP)

A reporter wanted to know: now that Sloane Stephens had shocked the world and won her first Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows, was she hungry for more?

Stephens, sitting a few inches from the US Open trophy, fl ashed her questioner a side-eyed, “Are you kidding me?” glance. The answer, her look said, should have been obvious.

“Of course, girl!” Stephens said.

Was it the glory, or the trophy, or the satisfaction of a job well done that inspired Stephens’ response? Yes, those things were nice. But at that moment she had a more tangible motivating factor in mind.

“Did you see that check that lady handed me?” Stephens asked, as laughter swept the media room. The check she was referring to was her prize money: a cool $3.7 million. “Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will.”

By the time the laughter had died down, it was clear that a new type of tennis star had been born. Over the course of an afternoon, on one of the biggest stages in the sport, the Florida native had played the roles of champion, friend and comedian with equal ease.

Stephens began by dropping just three games in beating fellow American Madison Keys in her first Grand Slam final. Then, in a moment that was more memorable than the match itself, she wrapped her friend in a long, consoling hug at the net. Finally, Stephens showed off her chops as a cut-up in the press room.

“I’m going to totally put this in my bio: US Open champion,” Stephens said with her customary straight-faced sarcasm.

Had the American tennis torch finally passed from those pioneers, Venus and Serena Williams, to their wisecracking Millennial successor? The 24-year-old Stephens had, after all, shocked the 37-year-old Venus in the match of the tournament in the semifinals, and her title capped a meteoric two-month rise from No. 957 in the rankings to No. 13. After years of dizzying highs and desultory lows, as well as foot surgery that had sidelined her for the first six months of 2017, Stephens had fulfilled her immense potential in one late-summer swoop.

“We always said she had such great foot speed, and often times she would rely on her defensive skills too much,” Tennis Channel’s Tracy Austin said of Stephens in November. “But she found a nice mix in the summer, where she was getting so many balls back in play, consistent, with good shape, good height—and then when she felt it was time, she really ripped the ground strokes.”

Sports Illustrated seemed to make her ascendancy official when it put Stephens on its cover, under the headline, SLOANE STEADY: Her Story Was Already Special. Now the Sloane Stephens Tennis Journey Has Substance. But SI has a well-earned reputation for jinxing its cover subjects, and it didn’t take long for Stephens to succumb.

Two weeks after the US Open, Stephens lost in the first rounds in Wuhan and Beijing, went 0–2 at the WTA’s year-end event in Zhuhai, and went 0–2 while playing for the U.S. in the Fed Cup final against Belarus. With a chance to clinch the Americans’ first Cup since 2000, Stephens squandered a 5–2 lead in the third set to No. 87 Aliaksandra Sasnovich.

While the U.S. doubles team picked up the slack and secured the victory, Stephens was left to watch from the sidelines. The megawatt smile that lit up Flushing Meadows was gone, and so was the spark from her game.

“Sloane’s offense doesn’t seem as turned on as it was this summer,” Lindsay Davenport said of Stephens’ late-season play on Tennis Channel. “Throughout the summer, she was doing such a great job of finishing points when she had the opportunity.”

For Stephens fans, her post-Open crash came with a dose of déjà vu. In 2013, she made her first breakthrough run, to the Australian Open semifinals, and was unanimously declared the future of U.S. tennis. But that future didn’t last long. Over the next four months, an often-uninspired Stephens went just 3–7. The media attention was “very taxing,” she said, and the road was “definitely lonely.” For four years, she failed to return to a Grand Slam semifinal. The question surrounding Stephens went from “Does she have a major title in her?” to “Does she even like playing tennis?”

And that, more than anything about strokes or strategy, was the big difference for Stephens in 2017: after spending months on crutches, she was just happy to run around on a court again. The word “fun” returned to her tennis vocabulary, and just like that, the wins piled up.

“There’s no pressure on me,” Stephens said last August in Cincinnati, where she followed up a semifinal showing in Toronto with another semifinal run. “I’m just going and having fun. I think most of it is I’m so excited to be on the court and be able to play again that I kind of have a little extra oomph.” “I just go out and have fun and beat people now,” she added. “That’s pretty much the story of my life.”

How will Stephens find that extra oomph again in 2018, when she’ll have a new target on her back? She’ll need all she can get. Unlike Serena, blowing opponents off the court is not Stephens’ style. Her game is a delicate balancing act of consistency and aggression, of defense and offense, of knowing when to play it safe and when to pull the trigger. Like Angelique Kerber, also an athletic defender, Stephens needs to play lots of matches to find her groove. In 2017, we saw what happened to Kerber when she got off to a slow start and didn’t build any momentum— she dropped from No. 1 to No. 21. And we saw what happened to Stephens when she played match after match in the summer—she found the confidence to win the US Open.

The trick for Stephens in 2018 will be recapturing that carefree spirit, even when the expectations for her are sky-high. The media attention will still be taxing, and the road will still be lonely. The difference for Stephens now is that she knows two things: there’s no limit to her potential, and she has the power to fulfill it.

Make that three things: she knows just how fat that Grand Slam check will be if she does.

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