This story first appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Long Island Tennis Magazine
As 2016 turned into 2017, Sloane Stephens found herself at a difficult crossroads in both her life and her tennis career.
After undergoing foot surgery in January of 2017, Stephens knew she would be missing considerable time on the tour and was staring at a long rehab to get back on the courts.
“I had a cast and a peg leg, and I think that was probably my toughest time,” Stephens said of the beginning to 2017.
The Plantation, Fla. native had been dealing with a foot injury for quite some time before her January surgery. After competing in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in the summer of 2016, Stephens withdrew from the U.S. Open and would go on to miss the rest of the season.
She headed to Australia to begin 2017, but soon found out she had a stress fracture and a cyst in that same foot, sidelining her indefinitely.
The former Australian Open semifinalist decided to try her hand at television during her time away from the court, working as a contributing reporter for Tennis Channel during a few tournaments, a role she loved.
“I was at Tennis Channel, and I was around some great people, like Paul Annacone and Lindsay Davenport. I just tried to stay positive. I think it was just kind of eye-opening,” Stephens recalls. “When I wasn’t playing, of course I loved my time off, but when I got back to playing tennis, it was like this is where I want to be. This is what I love doing.”
That time away from the court and on the sidelines reawakened her love and passion for the sport, and gave her a newfound perspective. While a major injury and bulk of time missed can often have the reverse effect for players, it helped Sloane Stephens.
She set a goal for a return this past summer, and began her comeback on the historic grass courts at Wimbledon. While she would lose in her first match back, a first-round defeat to fellow American Alison Riske, Stephens knew playing that match was more about a simple win or a loss.
“I did the best I could, but was able to get out there and was pain-free,” Stephens said after the loss at Wimbledon. “I have been practicing, playing practice sets and matches and stuff, but it’s totally different when you get into a match situation. It’s been awhile, so it was different than practicing with people who I am comfortable with.”
After Wimbledon and before the hard-court season started in North America, Stephens decided to get some more matches under her belt by participating in World TeamTennis (WTT) as a member of the Philadelphia Freedoms.
Sloane Stephens, along with Taylor Townsend, pose with a young fan during the World TeamTennis season this past summer. (Credit photo to Sidney Beal III/Clique Photography)
“Being able to play my really good friends, I think that’ll make it even more enjoyable for me,” Stephens said before the summer’s WTT season. “At this point, I’m just looking forward to getting on the court, no matter where it is. I think this will be a way to start my comeback.”
The WTT season benefitted Stephens, playing some more tennis before the important hard-court tournaments to get her match-legs underneath her. Entering the U.S. Open Series ranked 957th in the world, she would lose to Simona Halep in her first match in Washington, D.C., but responded by reaching the semifinals at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, losing a hard-fought match to Caroline Wozniacki.
She followed up her run North of the Border with another semifinal run at the 2017 Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, falling again to current world number one, Simona Halep. She headed into the U.S. Open with an air of confidence about her. That confidence was on display throughout her fortnight in Flushing Meadows, ultimately culminating in a 6-3, 6-0 thrashing of compatriot Madison Keys in the U.S. Open final.
The 24-year-old was on the verge of being ranked outside the top 1,000 at the beginning of the summer, and hoisted a Grand Slam trophy just a few months later; a truly remarkable turn of events.
“I had surgery Jan. 23, and if someone told me then that I’d win the U.S. Open, ‘It’s impossible, I would say. It’s absolutely impossible,’ I would have said. My journey to get here, coming back, just being able to keep it all together and have such a great team behind me—this journey’s been incredible,” said Stephens. “I honestly wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Stephens could not have thanked her family and her team enough for the amount of work that they put in to help her on her journey, notably her coach, Kamau Murray, and her mother, Sybil Smith.
Sloane Stephens after winning the 2017 U.S. Open. (Credit photo to USTA/Darren Carrol)
Stephens comes from an athletic background, as Smith was an All-American swimmer at Boston University, and her father, John Stephens, was a former first-round draft pick and Offensive Rookie of the Year in the National Football League with the New England Patriots.
While her parents separated when she was young, Stephens had a ton of support from her mother, something she says put her on the right path.
“We’ve been on such a journey together. My mom is incredible,” Stephens said to the Flushing Meadows crowd after winning the U.S. Open. “I don’t think parents get enough credit. When I was 11-years-old, my mom took me to a tennis academy. One of the directors told my mom that I’d be lucky if I was a Division II player and I got a scholarship. I think any parent that ever supports their child—you could be here one day. Parents … never give up on your kids. If they want to do something, always encourage them.”
The U.S. Open held some painful memories for Stephens, as it was on the grounds at Flushing Meadows during the U.S. Open Junior tournament when she was 16 that she received a phone call from her sister informing her that her father had died in a car accident.
“I didn’t think I would ever be able to regroup here, at this place because it was filled with so many emotions—and not good ones,” said Stephens. “If someone told me when my dad died that I would end up winning the U.S. Open years later, I would’ve been like, ‘You’re crazy.’ But I’ve had so many great moments here, as well as so many sad moments that winning here makes it all the more special.”
The emotional roller coaster of Stephens 2017 season was one filled with peaks and valleys, ups and downs, but will undoubtedly end on a high note. For a player who knocked off Serena Williams to reach the Australian Open semifinal four years ago, and especially after her injury, many believed that Stephens’ potential had been tapped out.
Her Grand Slam victory now catapults Stephens inside the top 20 of the world rankings and earned her a $3.7 million pay day. Her performance was indicative of a growing trend, as all four of the women semifinalists hailed from the United States, and the final was contested by two players under the age of 30 for the third time in the last five majors.
While Stephens’ win says a lot of about the presence of young stars on the WTA Tour, her triumphant return is all about her, and the amount of dedication that it required. The “Summer of Sloane” crossed over into the fall, and her successful comeback was one of the most inspirational stories in all of sports.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.