Stephens’ New York Tie Continues
Mark Winters and Cheryl Jones
In 2009, the game discovered Sloane Stephens. It was during the US Open, and it was under dreadful circumstances. Who could know that by the end of that tournament Stephens would be recognized not just for her tennis prowess, but for the mature way the 16-year-old dealt with the unexpected death of her father?
Eight years ago, on September 9th, Stephens wasn’t at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The Junior Girls’ No. 4 seed was in Louisiana attending her father’s funeral. John Stephens, an American football star with the New England Patriots, had been killed when his truck crashed as he was driving on a country road near Shreveport, Louisiana near where he had grown up.
Losing a family member is devastating, but for the junior standout the situation was even more perplexing. A first-round draft choice in 1988, her father was the 1989 National Football League Offensive Rookie of the Year. That same year, he met Sybil Smith, an All-American swimmer at Boston University. They married and Sloane was born March 20, 1993.
Her parents divorced when she was young, so she knew very little about her father. When he learned that he had a degenerative bone disease and was dying, John began a telephone relationship with his daughter, who had become one of the top junior tennis players in the world. Over a short period of time, their chats led to a solid friendship with the promise of more to come. His death added another dimension to Stephens’ tennis career. She was forced to decide if she should remain in the tournament or withdraw so she could attend his memorial service.
After defeating Polina Leykina of Russia, 6-4, 6-2 in the first-round, a poised Stephens admitted that she had been nervous during the match because of all she had been dealing with. She noted, “The last three days have been very interesting. I’ve been trying to focus on tennis, but when I come off the court I’ve missed 15 telephone calls. My mom, along with my uncles and aunts, have been helping me deal with things.”
“I was thinking about going to the funeral, hoping that I would not have to withdraw. Brian de Villiers (Melanie Oudin’s coach) told my mom that 15 or 20 years ago his father died and he didn’t go to the funeral. He said he still regrets not going. When my mom told me what he said, there was no way I wasn’t going. I’m ready, emotionally I’m prepared.”
(Thanks to special scheduling by US Open officials, she was able to attend the family gathering without having to pull out of the tournament.)
She added, “It was definitely worth having the relationship with him when we had it.”
“I want to make sure that I save my emotional energy and try to stay calm. I know it will be difficult, but it helps that I play tennis and can run around and do things on the court. I will be focused on what I need to do.”
Prior to the spring of 2009, tennis insiders considered Stephens to be extremely athletic and talented, but her results were not really all that memorable. That changed after she won the International Spring Championships at the USTA Training Facility-West in Carson, California. She followed up the success by becoming the first American to win the prestigious Italian Open Bonfiglio Championship in Milan since Gretchen Rush, the 1982 World Junior Champion, triumphed there.
Entering the US Open Junior Championships, she had only lost two singles matches that year. Both were to Kristina Mladenovic of France. The first was at Roland Garros (where she was a qualifier), in the semifinals and again in the quarterfinals of The Girls’ Singles Championship at Wimbledon.
Returning to New York after the ceremony for her father, she dropped a third-round decision to Jana Cepelova of Slovakia 4-6, 6-1, 6-0. After the contest, a weary Stephens explained, “I started out playing pretty well, then I just couldn’t get it together, I became frustrated. Yesterday (the funeral) was tough. It’s the end of the week and everything caught up with me. It’s just overwhelming me. I need to work on the mental side of things and get back to being me.”
Stephens put tennis on notice with a performance that was as dramatic on-court as it was off it. She was so personable that it magnified her presence, as did her ever-ready toothpaste commercial worthy smile. She was literally captivating. She seemed poised to be the future of US women’s tennis.
As it turned out, her ranking progress was steady, but not spectacular. She broke into the Top 100 finishing No. 97 at the end of 2011. By 2013, she was No. 12, having upset Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. But, between 2014 and ‘16, she stalled earning Top 30 rankings while winning four tournaments. She claimed her first, Washington in 2015 and three – Acapulco, Auckland and Charleston the next year.
Then in 2016, at the Rio Olympics, she injured her left foot, which necessitated surgery. The rehab kept her from competition for eleven months. She made her return at this year’s Wimbledon, losing in the first round. She did the same at Washington, but righted the ship with semifinal appearances at the Rogers Cup and the Western & Southern Open.
It could be seen as ironic that Stephens eight years earlier was unable to play on September 9th. This year, she played and, in a measured and consistent and persuasive performance, defeated her good friend, (who she said she loves to death), Madison Keys, 6-3, 6-0 in the US Open final. The match was historic because it marked the 60th Anniversary of Althea Gibson’s Forest Hills singles’ victory. It was also the first involving two African-American players, in Arthur Ashe Stadium, who were not named Williams.
With her first Grand Slam tournament title, Stephens will again be in the spotlight. Following the contest, she was delightfully expressive providing “notable quotes” for all.
When told, following the match, that she was thorough and had committed only six unforced errors, she grinned and said, “Shut the front door. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. Oh, my God. That’s a stat.”
Keys’ didn’t play her best, and Stephens addressed the fact during their exchange at the net after the last shot, “I told her I wish there could have been a draw. If it was the other way around, I’m sure she would have done the same thing.”
At No. 83, the winner became the lowest ranked player to ever win a major. The reality caused her to point out, “I had surgery on January 23rd, and if someone told me then I would win the US Open, it would be (seem) impossible.”
Learning that she earned $3.7 million for the victory, Stephens, as usual, grinned hugely admitting, “That’s a lot of money, my God.”
Concluding, she said, “I don’t think there is any other word to describe it than ‘amazing’ for me and Maddie.” And, amazing may be the best superlative adjectives to use to describe what is ahead for her. She’s courageous, and tenacious, and she’s only twenty-four.