Sloane Stephens' stunning summer and how she went from surgery to the US Open final in less than a year

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Smile like you mean it: Sloane Stephens.

There has been no shortage of incredible comeback tales this season and it seems fitting that both US Open women’s finalists – Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys – each has their own surgery-to-triumph journey in 2017.

Stephens missed 11 months of action, from last year’s Olympics to this year’s Wimbledon, in which she had an operation done on her left foot.

The 24-year-old American slipped to 957 in the world and up until last month had not won a singles match since Wimbledon 2016.

Yet within six weeks, Stephens has racked up 19 wins against four losses and is guaranteed a return to at least No. 22 in the rankings when the new list is released on Monday.

Here’s a closer look at her stunning summer and how she made an unlikely run to the US Open final…

SLOANE THE GIANT-SLAYER

Stephens made the semis in Toronto and Cincinnati, and is in the US Open final, and she has done it all by taking down some massive scalps.

Her route to the title match in Flushing Meadows this fortnight saw her defeat:

  • Former runner-up Roberta Vinci,
  • No. 11 seed Dominika Cibulkova,
  • Talented Aussie Ashleigh Barty,
  • No. 30 seed Julia Goerges,
  • No. 16 seed Anastasija Sevastova,
  • And finally No. 9 seed and two-time champion Venus Williams.

Her other victims this summer include Petra Kvitova (lost to Stephens in Toronto and Cincinnati), Lucie Safarova, Angelique Kerber and Ekaterina Makarova.

Stephens has spent a total of 11 hours and 35 minutes on court in singles at this US Open and the average ranking of her opponents is 26.5.

POSITIVITY HAS BEEN THE KEY

Stephens has gotten herself out of tricky situations these past few weeks and she explains how staying positive has been crucial for her. She dropped the second set against Venus in the semi-finals on Thursday but hung on and had the final say in the end.

“Yeah, I guess because I’m just getting old (smiling), more calm and just kind of — it’s very situational. Tennis is very situational,” says Stephens. “I think once you realise that it’s not life or death out there, like, things — like, you can turn a tennis match around.

“When I am on the court, I realise if I just stay positive with myself, I can make a lot of things happen, and I can fight back from a lot of things.”

DESPITE SURGERY, SHE KEPT HER MOVES

It’s no secret that speed and impeccable footwork are two of Stephens’ greatest strengths and it’s remarkable how she has managed to return from foot surgery and still maintain such great movement.

“I was on a walking boot like a month before I played Wimbledon,” she admits.

“I knew I was going to have to play my way into shape, and I think I’ve done that pretty well. I got a lot of matches in. I’ve run a lot. I’ve played a couple of three-setters. So, yeah, I think my movement is probably what’s kind of kept me in some of these matches, shockingly.”

FINDING HER INNER BEAST

As a 19-year-old, Stephens had her early breakthrough at the 2013 Australian Open, where she beat Serena Williams en route to the semi-finals. She made the fourth round or better at all four majors that season. It has taken her four years to get back to the semis at a Slam.

On what she learnt about herself during that four-year journey, Stephens says: “That I’m a real fighter, that I have a lot of grit. Surprising. Like, to myself, I don’t give up. Like, I’m not just going to give it to someone. I’m not just going to let them take it from me. I’m going to make sure I give everything that I have, and I leave everything on the court at all times, no matter what.”

PROUD TO BE PART OF HISTORY

Sixty years ago, Althea Gibson became the first African-American player to win a Grand Slam by claiming both Wimbledon and the US Open in 1957. Stephens was one of three African-American women featuring in this fortnight’s semi-finals (along with Keys and Venus).

“I don’t think there is any other word to describe it than “amazing” for me and Maddie. Obviously, Venus, we are following in her footsteps. She’s been here. She’s represented the game so well as an African-American woman. Maddie and I are here to join her and represent just as well as Venus has in the past and honoured to be here,” said Stephens in New York on Thursday.

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Americans Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, both struggling with serious injuries just three months ago, advanced to their first Grand Slam final at the US Open on Thursday.

Stephens, who missed 11 months with a left foot injury before returning in July, outlasted seven-time Slam champion Venus Williams 6-1, 0-6, 7-5.

“I’m super happy to be in a Grand Slam final,” Stephens said. “To do it here, my home slam, is obviously more special. I think this is what every player dreams about.”

US 15th seed Keys, who had left wrist surgery for the second time in 10 months after a first-round French Open exit, routed US 20th seed CoCo Vandeweghe 6-1, 6-2 in 66 minutes to complete the first all-American US Open final since Serena Williams beat sister Venus in 2002.

“It still doesn’t feel real. I’m still shaking,” Keys said. “I played pretty well. There’s a lot of things in my head right now so I’m struggling to come up with words.

“I knew I had to rise to the occasion. I’m just happy to be in the final.”

The friends and Fed Cup teammates will meet Saturday at Arthur Ashe Stadium in the biggest match of either’s career for a top prize of $3.7 million (3.07 million euros).

“I’ve known her for a long time. She’s one of my closest friends on tour,” Stephens said. “I love her to death. And it’s not easy playing a friend.”

Stephens, who was wearing a walking boot in June and ranked 957th in July, has won 14 of her past 16 matches, with semi-final runs at Toronto and Cincinnati.

“I have no words to describe what I’m feeling, what it took to get here, the journey I’ve been on,” Stephens said.

“It’s incredible. I don’t know how I got here. Your guess is as good as mine. Just hard work. That’s it.”

Stephens beat Keys in the second round at Miami in 2015 in their only career meeting.

“Sloane is a new person right now,” Keys said. “She’s so excited to be out on the court again. I’m excited we get to play each other in the US Open final.”

Stephens needed a thrilling break at love in the penultimate game and closing hold of serve to deny two-time champion Williams her first US Open final in 15 years.

“I just worked my tail off and tried to run every ball down and here we are,” Stephens said. “It required a lot of fight and a lot of grit.”

Now 83rd, Stephens is the lowest-ranked Slam finalist since unranked Justine Henin at the 2010 Australian Open and the lowest at the US Open since unranked Kim Clijsters won the 2009 title.

Stephens, who beat Williams in the first round of the 2015 French Open in their only prior meeting, will jump into the world top 25 next week with the victory.

Sloane Stephens returns the ball to Venus Williams during their US Open semi-finals match.

Sloane Stephens returns the ball to Venus Williams during their US Open semi-finals match.

US ninth seed Williams could not overcome 51 unforced errors that doomed her bid to become the oldest women’s singles finalist in US Open history at age 37.

“It was definitely well competed,” Williams said. “In the end she won more points than I did and that’s what it added up to.

“Just made so many errors at the end there… I wasn’t playing well. Just wasn’t playing well.”

Williams will return to the top five in Monday’s world rankings for the first time since 2011, the year she was diagnosed with strength-sapping Sjogren’s Syndrome.

Stephens, 24, is 4-0 in WTA finals, having won titles in 2015 at Washington and last year in Auckland, Acapulco and Charleston.

The only cautionary note for Keys, 22, was a medical timeout to have her right leg taped three games from the end.

“I definitely started to feel it,” she said. “I felt if I went too far it might be something more.”

It was the first all-American US Open women’s semi-finals since 1981 and the first at any Slam since Wimbledon in 1985.

On Friday, the men return to Arthur Ashe Stadium with 15-time Slam champion Rafael Nadal, the world number one, seeking his fourth trip to the New York finals against 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, the 24th seed from Argentina.

South African Kevin Anderson and Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta meet in the other semi-final.

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Juan Martin del Potro

Juan Martin Del Potro admits he will not be physically 100 percent fit to face world number one Rafael Nadal in Friday’s potentially blockbuster US Open semi-final.

The 28-year-old Argentine has been plagued by injuries since he won his only Grand Slam title in New York in 2009, beating Roger Federer in the final and Nadal in the semi-finals.

He gatecrashed the tournament again on Wednesday when he defeated Federer in a gripping quarter-final 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (10/8), 6-4 to reach his fourth Grand Slam semi-final.

“Against Rafa, it will be a much harder match. I am not in good condition,” said Del Potro, who had needed five exhausting sets and saved two match points to beat Dominic Thiem in the fourth round.

“But it’s a semi-final so anything can happen. I have to be ready to face Rafa in my favorite tournament.

“I will try to exploit the atmosphere and if I play my best I can be a danger to him.”

Del Potro’s 2009 US Open final five-set win ended Federer’s five-year reign as champion and his 40-match win streak.

He had also crushed Nadal in straight sets in the semi-finals, losing just six games. He was just 20 at his time and had the world at his feet.

Rafael Nadal

Nadal cruised through in his last eight clash.

However, he went on to undergo four wrist surgeries, missed 10 Grand Slams and, at one stage last year, his world ranking slumped to 1,045.

That left him even contemplating retirement before a run to the Olympic final in Rio — beating Nadal in the semi-finals — helped reinvigorate his passion for the sport.

Despite his doubts, he is used to playing exhausting semi-final epics – at Wimbledon in 2013, he lost to Novak Djokovic in 4hr 43min, the longest Slam semi-final ever played.

His Roland Garros semi-final defeat to Federer in 2009 was also a five-setter.

“Against Rafa, he is a lefty so he will come after my forehand,” added Del Potro.

Nadal will take an 8-5 record over Del Potro into the semi-final, where the winner will face either Kevin Anderson or Pablo Carreno Busta for the title.

“Juan Martin is a top player. When he’s playing well, it’s difficult to stop him. Probably the forehand is maybe the fastest on the tour,” said Nadal, who is chasing his second major of the year to add to his French Open.

Federer, who raced into the interview room after his defeat, praised Del Potro, saying, “Juan Martin fought like a lion.”

“I feel like the way I’m playing right now it’s not good enough to win this tournament. It’s better I’m out and somebody else gets a chance to win.”

Provided by AFP Sport

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