There are currently 16 active Grand Slam champions on the women’s tour and Friday’s a very special day for one of them. Sloane Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion, celebrates her 27th birthday.
For someone still so young, the American has already had an incredible career.
After spending her first few years on the tour steadily climbing up the rankings, breaking the Top 100 in 2011 and the Top 50 in 2012, Stephens burst into prominence at the Australian Open in 2013, defeating Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, to reach her first Grand Slam semifinal.
Serena had won 39 of her last 40 matches and had never lost to a younger American before.
“This morning when I got up I was like, ‘Look, dude, you can do this. Like, go out and play and do your best,’” Stephens said after the stunning upset. “I think I was convinced that I was able to do it when I lost serve in the first game of the second set and went down 2-0. I was like, 'This is not the way you want it to happen. But just fight and get every ball back, and I think you’ll be okay.' I just kind of played my game from there, I think.”
She eventually lost to Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals in Melbourne, but that run to the final four would be just the beginning for Stephens, who made another Grand Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon that summer, got up to No. 11 by the fall and became a fixture in the Top 20 over the next few years.
Then, disaster struck. A right foot injury kept Stephens off the tour for almost a year between August 2016 and July 2017, dropping her all the way to No. 957 on the rankings.
In her first match back, Stephens fell to Alison Riske in straight sets in the first round of Wimbledon, a very tough draw given Riske's comfort on the surface. In her second match back, Stephens went down in straight sets to Simona Halep to drop her Washington D.C. opener. Halep was No. 2 at the time.
But then came one of the most unexpected runs in recent memory. Stephens reached back-to-back semifinals at Premier 5 events in Toronto and Cincinnati, then went all the way to her first Grand Slam title at the US Open. She was two points away from exiting in the semifinals to Venus Williams, before digging in to win, 7-5, in the third. Stephens capped her run by making just six unforced errors to beat Madison Keys in the final, 6-3, 6-0.
She had gone into Toronto ranked No. 934; she left New York at No. 17.
“When I had surgery, I was not thinking that I would be anywhere near a US Open title, nor did I think I was going to be anywhere near the Top 100,” Stephens said after her triumph at Flushing Meadows. “I was worried about using my protected ranking to get in here. I used both of them already for Grand Slams and tournaments and just to be able to play. I was thinking about all the wrong things.
“Once I kind of let that go and just realized that whatever is meant to be is going to be, that I worked hard to get here and, you know, that’s that, then I think a lot of that stress was relieved and I was able to just play free and run and compete and just get out there and get after it every match.
“There are no words to describe how I got here, the process it took or anything like that, because if you told someone this story, they’d be like, ‘That’s insane.’”
The Plantation, Florida native has been building her resume ever since that fairytale in New York. She won her first Premier Mandatory title at Miami in 2018, and reached another Grand Slam final a few months later at Roland Garros, getting within a few games of winning that major, too, after leading Halep in the final, 6-3, 2-0. She eventually reached a career-high ranking of No. 3 after Wimbledon that summer.
Stephens is currently ranked No. 37 after a difficult stretch that began last summer, but if the past is anything to go by, one thing’s for sure: no matter where she’s ranked, you can’t underestimate this champion.