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.
Carlos Alcaraz Gets Revenge On Andy Murray To Reach Vienna Last Eight
Carlos Alcaraz is into the Vienna quarter-finals after beating Andy Murray in straight sets.
Carlos Alcaraz got revenge on Andy Murray after beating the former grand slam champion 6-3 6-4 to reach the Vienna Quarter-Finals.
The Spaniard lost to Murray in a three set battle at Indian Wells earlier this month but was victorious in Austria.
Despite being a break up in the second set, the three time grand slam champion couldn’t consistently out-power the aggressive Spaniard.
Alcaraz will now play Nikoloz Basilashvili or Matteo Berrettini in the last eight.
Alcaraz was aggressive from the very first ball as he controlled rallies behind the baseline and punished Murray’s weak second serve.
After being broke in the first game, the Brit got his revenge in the fourth game as he converted in his sixth break point of the game to seal the break back.
However Alcaraz’s firepower was too much and the Spaniard’s consistent firepower was too much for Murray as two hard-fought breaks followed as he sealed the opening set in 65 minutes.
Murray utilised a more attacking style of play in the second set and was rewarded with an early break of serve as he would take a 4-2 lead.
But Alcaraz displayed too much power and accuracy as he reeled off four games in a row to complete his victory and progress into the Vienna quarter-finals.
Alcaraz will now play Basilashvili or Berrettini in the quarter-finals as he looks for a strong finish to a career-best season.
As for Murray that will be the end of his season unless he gets a wildcard into Paris next week or makes the Davis Cup Finals team for Great Britain.
Simona Halep wins the all Romanian battle in Cluj
Simona Halep is into the second round in Cluj after a dominant performance.
The world number 18 and the top seed managed to beat her Romanian counterpart in straight sets.
Simona Halep is through round one of the Transylvania Open, being played at the BT Arena in Cluj-Napoca, after beating a fellow Romanian Elena Gabriella Ruse in straight sets 6-1, 6-2 in one hour and 13 minutes.
The number one seed served six aces and won 83% of her first serve points in a match that seemed one-sided and Halep was pulling amazing shots and winners throughout the entire match.
“It’s not easy to face a Romanian in the first round of a Romanian tournament but I was very focused and concentrated on what I have to do and I didn’t really think of who I would play, I just wanted to play my game and I felt great on court today.”
It was actually the world 85 with the first breakpoint of the match in the first game but it was denied when Halep stepped up to the service line and fired an ace to save it.
After holding serve the world number 18 started looking for the early lead and she was able to get it after a poor service game from Ruse and after consolidating the break managed to turn it into a double break.
Halep served out the first set in a mere 29 minutes and it was clear she was the better player today.
She continued to ride the momentum into the second set and at 1-1 earned three more chances to break and broke with a stunning return winner that caught Ruse off guard for the 2-1 lead.
At 4-2, the top seed managed to go up a double break with another amazing passing shot and she served out the match and after the match in her post-match press conference, she spoke about pulling off those amazing shots on breakpoints.
“When I have a chance to do it I always do because I love these kinda shots and today it was a great one so it made me very happy.”
Halep will next face the Russian Varvara Gracheva in the next round after she beat the German Andrea Petkovic in three sets 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 on Tuesday night.
Anett Kontaveit overpowers Krunic in Cluj-Napoca
Anett Kontaveit took a step towards the WTA Finals with a straight sets win in Cluj today.
The number two seed only needed two sets and 70 minutes to beat her Serbian opponent.
Anett Kontaveit is through to the second round of the Transylvania Open, being played at the BT Arena in Cluj-Napoca, beating the Serbian qualifier Aleksandra Krunic in straight sets 6-3, 7-5 in one hour and 10 minutes.
The world number 14 served two aces and won 69% of the points on her first serve in a match where she seemed to outhit her opponent using her powerful groundstrokes.
“The match was close and it was only break in the first set and I thought I was playing pretty well and winning a lot of points on my first serve but I actually think she served well and it wasn’t an easy match and the second set got really close”.
The Estonian had the better start to the match holding serve in her opening game and putting pressure on the Serb right away earning two chances to break serve and got the early break to take a 2-0 lead.
That one break was enough for Kontaveitt to serve out the first set and take it 6-3.
The second set was a more competitive affair and it stayed on serve until 2-2 when the Tallinn, Estonia native was able to break the Serb at love to take a 3-2 lead and she was able to consolidate the break.
It stayed on serve until 4-3 when the world number 44 fought back and was able to break the Estonian serve and the set went back on serve. Once again both players did a good job holding serve until 5-5 when Kontaveit got the crucial break of serve and served out the match.
After the match in her post-match press conference, Kontaveit spoke about how she was feeling energy-wise after such a short turnaround time from winning the title in Moscow last week.
” I feel like the energy has dropped a little bit but I did manage to bring some of the energy today and still be active and be aggressive.”
Kontaveit will now face Alison Van Uytvanck in her next match after the Belgian beat Danka Kovinic in straight sets 6-4, 6-4 earlier in the day.
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