“There are going to be a lot of drinks, apparently. We are having a little celebration and she [Madison Keys] is coming,” 24-year-old American Sloane Stephens said after she defeated Keys in straight sets in the final of US Open 2017 on Saturday. For the first time in 32 years, the spectators witnessed a memorable all-America semi-final in the women’s singles category. Apart from Venus Williams, the rest three women – Coco Vandeweghe, Keys and Stephens – were in early 20s, which certainly, shows the American tennis is awaited of a bright future.
While termed as the next big thing in women tennis by Serena Williams, Keys was favourite to win the final, being arguably the powerful player on the tour.
Stephens’ bravery tales are not new…
But, the one who took the trophy home that night, Stephens, is a story in herself – she won her maiden Grand Slam just 69 days after she returned from a career-threatening injury and six weeks since she dropped to WTA 957th rank. The journey from a wheelchair to a Grand Slam-holder will always be cherished in the book of American history.
Stephens’ bravery tales are not new; they go back to 2009 when she lost her father on the eve of US Open 2009 qualifiers. A 16-year-old Stephens, who had received a qualifying wildcard for the second year in a row, attended her father’s funeral and in the same state of mind she came down to the stadium to play the first round of the qualifier.
Although she lost the round, that decision to not miss the opportunity to enter the US Open showed her immense passion for the sport. Be it any sport, if a sportsperson has this zeal and determination, today or tomorrow, he/she does reach the top level. Moreover, the sportsmanship was in her blood. Her dad was an American football player, whereas he mom, who has been her heart and soul after her dad’s demise, was a swimmer in first division.
Stephens, who turned pro in 2010, took five years to clinch her maiden WTA title.
In August 2015, she defeated Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in straight sets to win the Washington Open; her first title came at home made it even more special. Next year she went on to win three more before she was struck by a severe foot injury. Stephens withdrew from the US Open due to a right foot stress fracture, which would sideline her for the rest of the year.
Broadcaster to champion
The American underwent a surgery in January 2017 and that made even her standing difficult. Until May 16, at least, she was unable to hit the ball or stand and which is why she was forced to use a wheelchair. One cannot imagine, being a sportsperson, how she must have dealt with the wheelchair physiologically. She was then granted the opportunity to be a broadcaster for Tennis Channel. She featured as an off-court personality, showing activities around the grounds and conducting player interviews in Indian Wells, Miami, and Charleston.
The closer ones to Stephens, witnessing her that way, surely wouldn’t have imagined her standing with a Grand Slam title later in the year. Comebacks in any sport are rare; and revival of a career this way is certainly one-off, especially in a sport like
Comebacks in any sport are rare; and revival of a career this way is certainly one-off, especially in a sport like Tennis which is physically demanding.
Stephens returned to the court in July but fell in the first round to compatriot Alison Riske. She would fail in the next tournament too, Citi Open. She began to give hints of a comeback when she reached the last four of the next two tournaments, Rogers Cup and Cincinnati Open.
She entered the US Open unseeded. There seemed no effects of her injury at all as she slowly went past, round after round. Her campaign, finally seemed in danger, when she drew against World No. 9 and six-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams. However, Stephens had an answer to everything Venus threw at her. Her defence was extraordinary and matched Venus’ resilience step by step to ensure she was always a step ahead of the senior woman.
In the mind-boggling decider set, Venus served to stay in the match, at 4-5 30-all but Stephens hit one off the backhand winners of her life to end a hammering rally, went on to win 10 of the last 11 points and eliminate the two-time champion. She is among the handful of youngsters who have beaten both Williams sisters in a Grand Slam match. It was Stephens’ victory over Serena in the quarter-final of Australian Open 2013 that pulled her into the limelight.
Stephens completed an unbelievable return from injury when she crushed “one of her best friends” on the tour and 15th seed Madison Keys in as many as 61 minutes in straight sets.
The final encounter was between two Americans on the American court in front of thousands of Americans in the prestigious Arthur Ashe. Regardless of who won, the ultimate winner was American tennis. The last time the women’s singles category had two American women on either side of the net was in 2002 when Serena and Venus Williams competed for the trophy. For the instance to repeat, America had to wait for 15 long years.