- United States
- Coral Springs, FL, US
2017 has been the best season for Sloane Stephens so far, as she was able to win the US Open title. In 2013, at the Age of 19, Sloane had some great results at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, reaching her career high ranking of #11.
When Sloane Stephens reached the Australian Open semi-finals in 2013, a new star seemed to have been born. But the wheels seemed to come off the Stephens bandwagon – until she bounced back in the most remarkable way.
It was a smile that lit up the tennis circuit. When Sloane Stephens beat Serena Williams in three sets to reach the Australian Open semi-finals in January 2013, she was the breath of fresh air tennis was looking for – a 19-year-old with not just a heart-warming smile, but an engaging personality and a great way with words, allied to a beautifully fluent way of hitting tennis balls.
But the smile soon faded. There were some misunderstandings about how things Stephens said in bouncy press conferences were reported in print, and suddenly the girl with the exuberant spirit had turned in on herself. Worse still, the results seemed not to flow.
Things looked to be picking up when she won three titles in the first four months of 2016, but after losing to Eugenie Bouchard at the Rio Olympics, she complained of problems in her foot. She withdrew from the US Open and ended up sitting out the rest of the year in order to be ready for 2017. But when the problems came back while preparing for the Australian Open, she discovered she had a stress fracture and a cyst.
On 23 January 2017, she underwent surgery and was on crutches for 16 weeks. It was not until April that she could walk at all, but she trained hard to get ready for Wimbledon where her ranking of 975 meant she needed a wildcard. She looked out of shape, and lost in the first round to Alison Riske. But at least she was playing again.
After losing to Simona Halep in Washington, she seemed relaxed and philosophical in her post-match interview, saying, ‘I just have to play a lot of matches. I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but eventually I will beat someone.’
That someone was Yulia Putintseva. Stephens beat the Ukrainian in the first round in Toronto a week later, which proved the start of a run of 17 matches in which she was beaten just twice. She defeated some big names en route to the semi-finals in Toronto and Cincinnati, but was still not fancied as a title contender at the US Open. And why would she be? – she was, after all, playing only her fifth tournament in 12 months.
Using her steady backcourt game to force opponents into error, Stephens beat the 2015 US Open finalist Roberta Vinci as well as the 11th seed Dominica Cibulkova and a future world No 1 Ashleigh Barty on her way to the quarter-finals. There she battled past the 16th seed Anastasija Sevastova on a 7-4 final set tiebreak.
Stephens had not been in a semi-final at a Grand Slam since defeating Serena Williams in the quarter-finals of the 2013 Australian Open, and now she found herself facing the older sister in what turned out to be a strange match, ending with Sloane defeating Venus 6-1 0-6 7-5.
As fate would have it, Stephens found herself facing her best friend in the final after Madison Keys had demolished Coco Vandeweghe for the loss of only three games in the semis. Unhappily, Keys suffered exactly the same fate herself in the final. Fraught with nerves, Keys went down 6-0, 6-3 to allow Stephens to claim a prize that had seemed a ridiculous goal just a few weeks before. In a gesture that will always be remembered by those who saw it, she walked over to Keys and sat with her disconsolate friend before the trophy ceremony in a show of friendship that put sporting rivalry in perspective.
There had never been any question about Sloane Stephens’ pedigree. Her father, John Stephens, was a running back for the New England Patriots and her mother, Sybil Smith, was an All American swimmer at Boston University. Athleticism was in her blood. And when her stepfather Sheldon Farrell, who played recreational tennis, directed her towards that sport, Sloane never looked back.
Born in Plantation, Florida, Stephens spent most of her pre-teen years living in Fresno, California but when the tennis bug kicked in, she returned to south Florida to train at the Chris Evert Academy at age 11. And when she came under the tutelage of Nick Saviano, the former ATP touring pro who had set up his own academy close to Plantation, she found her coaching soulmate.
Right away, Saviano recognised a teenager of exceptional athletic ability who was already strong enough to use a full-size Head racket, a weapon she has used throughout her career. ‘And she had something else going for her,’ Saviano told Head.com. ‘I saw in her mother a real sharp lady who understood the needs of an athlete. All the ingredients were there – we just needed to clean up her game as far as stroke production was concerned and I had no doubt that she could become a top player.’
Saviano has been proved right, both about Sloane and her mother. Sybil Smith had to be the rock after Sloane’s lost both her father and stepfather in her early teens, and she travelled everywhere with her daughter. Proving her inner strength, Sloane began winning junior titles, eventually making her Grand Slam debut at Roland Garros in 2011.
Frequently returning to Saviano between trips, and stints with coaches including Roger Smith, Paul Annacone, David Nainkin and her current coach Kamau Murray, Stephens appears to view Saviano as a figure of permanence in an impermanent life. ‘She calls whenever she feels a need to talk,’ says Saviano. ‘She is a delightful person and our relationship is very close to my heart.’
The results that followed her US Open triumph were uneven but, with Kamau Murray at her side, Stephens won the prestigious Miami Open the following March, and then finally did herself justice on her favourite surface, red clay, by reaching the final of Roland Garros and rising to No 3 in the world.
Stephens is engaged to her classmate pal at school, Jose Altidore, who made his name in another sport, playing for Middlesbrough FC in the English Premier League as well as representing the United States national soccer team. She has her own foundation and has formed Soles4Souls, an organisation that donates new and used shoes to those in need.
She has worn out enough of her own on the rocky road to success but, as Saviano points out, she cares deeply about her game and the journey is not over. And if she can tap into that sublime natural talent again, it would be hard to bet against her winning at least one more major title, if not several.
WORDS BY RICHARD EVANS