The contest between the American and the Italian, who reached the final here two years ago, was one of the most highly anticipated of the day. And on paper, at least, it had been scheduled on an appropriately high-profile court, Louis Armstrong Stadium.
This year, though, “Louis” doesn’t mean what it used to mean. The US Open is in the process of building a new arena by that name, which will be ready 12 months from now. In the meantime, the tournament has annexed a chunk of its parking lot and put up “Temp Louis,” a temporary set of low-rise stands that seat 8,000. It’s an out-of-the-way location that’s seemingly in another zip code from Arthur Ashe Stadium, and fans are still learning how to get there—if they even know the place exists. At the start of the Vinci-Stephens match this afternoon, the vibe on Temp Louis was mellow enough that you might have thought you were in Cincinnati.
If that’s what it felt like to Stephens, she probably didn’t mind. The 24-year-old—yes, she’s still only 24— just had one of the best weeks of her career at the Western & Southern Open in Cincy, where she beat three former Top 10 players—and won two matches in one day—to reach the semifinals. The previous week she had blown out Angelique Kerber on her way to reaching the semis in Toronto.
After missing the first six months of the season due to foot surgery, Sloane was suddenly a player to watch again. And she was different. She was calm, she was cool, she didn’t get down on herself and she was winning the close sets that she once lost. Best of all, she seemed to be enjoying a sport that she hasn’t always enjoyed in the past.
What was the secret to Stephens’ newfound, and unexpectedly rapid, success? According to Stephens, the answer was pretty simple.
“I was kind of like, ‘All right, just going with it,’” she said two weeks ago. “Obviously, when you’re playing good players, at this point in my comeback there’s no pressure on me. It’s just like, I’m going and having fun. I think most of it is I’m so excited to be on the court and to be able to play again that I kind of have a little extra oomph.”
“I just go out and play and have fun and beat people now,” she said with a laugh. “That’s pretty much the story of my life.”
The question, of course, is how long Stephens, or any player, can keep having fun before the pressure to do more—i.e. win—exerts itself. She claimed that she wasn’t going to sweat it in New York.
“Obviously, going into the Open, I’m not seeded,” she said, “so it’s kind of just, like, just go out and have fun. If I beat somebody, great. If not, I still have a lot of tournaments to use.”
Vinci isn’t just “somebody,” of course. With her backhand slice and willingness to come to net, she’s one of the tricker opponents for anyone. And she was up to her usual tricks against Stephens in the first set. Vinci earned six break points by outlasting Stephens in the long rallies and forcing her to hit up on everything with her slice. Whether it was Vinci’s game, or the inevitable expectations finally kicking in, Stephens wasn’t as free and easy, or as aggressive, as she had been in Toronto and Cincy. She seemed content to do what few people would have recommended she do against Vinci: Stay back and rally.
As they say, though, when you’re hot, you’re hot. Outplayed for most of the first set, Stephens still managed to squeak through by the barest and luckiest of margins. Vinci couldn’t convert on five of her six break points, and serving at 5-6, she double-faulted to hand Stephens a set point. Stephens’ next return of serve was a mishit that floated upward, knuckled in the breeze, landed on the net cord and popped over for a set-deciding winner. Instead of pumping her fist, Sloane gave Vinci her most delicate “I’m sorry” look.
Stephens, of course, got over her guilt quickly. With the first set in her pocket, she escaped from Vinci’s web and began battering winners from both sides. Here was the easy power that we had seen in Toronto and Cincy, and that we always knew Stephens possessed. She rolled past an increasingly frustrated Vinci for a 7-5, 6-1 win. According to Sloane, the base of confidence that she built up this summer helped make the difference on Monday.
“I played a lot of matches,” Stephens said, “and I knew that if I stick with it good things would happen.”
That’s not something Sloane has always been able to say to herself. In the past, she could be quick to believe that good things were not going to happen. Even at 24, though, she’s been around long enough to understand that there will be more downs to go with the ups—she won’t always hit a net-cord winner on set point.
“It’s almost too good too soon,” said Stephens, who plays the winner of the match between Dominika Cibulkova and Jana Cepelova. “I’m just trying to settle down.”
If Sloane can stay as settled as she is right now, good things are really bound to happen for her.
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