Game. Sloane Stephens has got it. Always has. However, for years, the 24 year-old African-American tennis pro only revealed flashes of her high-level game, succumbing to a string of injuries or the pressure of being targeted as a potential heir apparent to the iconic Serena Williams.
Set. A little over a month ago, the stage was set as Stephens, recently healed from her injuries and ranked number 934 in the world, began an epic run that, by early September, had her among the four semifinalists vying for the U.S. Open tennis title at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. On Thursday, the Florida native upset former champion Venus Williams to advance to the women’s singles final showdown with friend and fellow African-American Madison Keys.
Match. Stephens has been known to talk about winning a grand slam tournament with “that perfect moment,” that perfect performance, that perfect match. On Saturday it all fell into place as she claimed the 2017 U.S. Open title with a 6-3, 6-0 win nearly as flawless as her stunning smile. The dominant victory made her the first American woman other than one of the Williams sisters to win a major tennis tournament since Jennifer Capriati in 2002.
“Things just have to come together,” Stephens told the arena crowd in her postmatch interview. “And the last five or six weeks, they really have.”
It would be easy to write off Stephens’ victory as a one-and-done, the result of a streaking player performing “in the zone.” But those who have watched her over the years believe Stephens has always had this potential. Asked before the final if the underdog had a chance at winning the U.S. Open, her coach Kamau Murray told Inside Tennis, “You know what, if she steps up and takes it, I think she can. … If next round she steps up and plays courageous, and swings free, she can win.”
While Stephens’ intellect, poise, speed and superior work ethic have recently translated to victory on the court, her athleticism was largely a birthright bestowed by two talented parents, the late NFL running back John Stephens, and All-American collegiate swimmer, Sybil Smith. To groom these gifts, Smith enrolled the young and capable Stephens into the elite Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida. It proved to be a pivotal and motivating move for more reasons than one.
“When I was 11 years old, my mom took me to a tennis academy,” Stephens told the mesmerized arena after her victory over Keys. “One of the directors there told my mom that I’d be lucky if I was a Division II player and I got a scholarship.”
Chip on her young shoulder, Stephens later moved to the Nick Saviano High Performance Tennis Academy near her home in Plantation, Florida, and her game began to flourish. By age 19, she would shock the world by beating its number one player, and her idol, Serena Williams, to reach the semifinals of the 2013 Australian Open. Soon afterward, she would go on to make it to the Wimbledon quarterfinals and, although not winning any of these majors, pressure mounted as inevitable comparisons between Stephens and tennis’ reigning queen took hold.
The pressure and a number of events would temporarily derail Stephens’ successful path. After her 2013 defeat of Williams, a player she had worked with through a mutual coach and an alleged mentor, the two players had a much publicized falling out. This combined with mounting expectations to turn Stephens’ attitude against the game she once loved, and it took a toll on her on the court performance.
Three years later, older, more poised and mentally stronger, Stephens rebounded, winning three WTA titles while preparing for the 2016 French Open. Then, that April, she abruptly left the European tour to fly home when her grandmother had a stroke. Once the 86 year-old was stabilized, Stephens rushed to France to compete without the time to prepare properly and subsequently sustained a stress fracture in her foot that would require surgery and rehabilitation and keep her off the court for 11 months.
Sidelined with injury until this past spring, it’s safe to say no one could have anticipated Saturday’s spectacular US Open win, including Stephens herself. When asked about her chances of standing with the 2017 U.S. Open trophy in her hands only five months removed from her debilitating injury, Stephens responded “Impossible, I would say.”
Many are speculating that the aging Williams sisters will soon depart tennis in a few years, leaving a crater in the sport. The two have been inspirations to tennis fans and opened up possibilities for young Black women who never considered tennis before. Venus continues to play at top form through illness. As the immortal Serena recovers from childbirth, her return to tennis and the chance to win more majors than any other player are looming as the captivating end to the most brilliant women’s tennis career ever witnessed. Stephens now sets herself up as one of the only real competitors capable of consistently stopping Serena since Venus Williams was at the top of her game. Whether reluctantly or not, Serena may be passing the torch of tennis greatness to Stephens, one Black woman to another.