FLUSHING MEADOWS, NEW YORK— And so Sloane Stephens has moved beyond herself again to a place she has never been before, to a destination she had been seeking for a long period of time, to a status she had sought for ages. The energetic and charismatic American has reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open for the first time in her career, and she holds the distinction of being the first woman this year to make it to the penultimate round at the season's last major event. Stephens must be given full marks for her strong showing here, no matter what happens the rest of the way, regardless of whether or not she plays for the title on Saturday evening or instead bows out two nights earlier. Under any circumstance, she has realized a dream with her best showing at a Grand Slam tournament since she stunned the tennis world with a run to the semifinals of the 2013 Australian Open, when she had the gumption to beat Serena Williams.
Stephens has endured so many struggles since that run in Melbourne almost five years ago. She finished that year stationed at No. 12 in the world but her record since had been mediocre at best and was often very disappointing. She concluded the next three years at No. 37, No. 30 and No. 36. Her 2016 season started favorably with tournament triumphs in Auckland, Acapulco and Charleston but ended abysmally when she had to cut her year short with a serious injury. She would be out for about eleven months altogether before Wimbledon this year. Stephens had a stress fracture in her left navicular bone on the top of her foot near her ankle. She was forced to wear a boot and had her left leg propped up on a scooter. Her career seemed to be in jeopardy and her world had been turned upside down.
Stephens lost in the first round of Wimbledon upon her return to Alison Riske, but at least she had returned to competition and that was a step in the right direction. Her legion of longtime supporters hoped she would have some modestly successful results over the summer that might give her the inner belief to play again on her own terms in 2018. But Stephens had an uplifting summer on the hard courts and her triumphs were more than modest as she reestablished herself as a front line player leading up to the U.S. Open. After losing to Simona Halep in her opening match in Washington, Stephens went to work with gusto and advanced to consecutive semifinals in Toronto and Cincinnati, losing to Caroline Wozniacki in the former and Halep in the latter.
Those scintillating showings clearly encouraged Stephens about her chances to fare well at the U.S. Open. She struck down some awfully good players in that span, including Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova. Stephens realized with victories like that, and the consistently high standard she set in both of those tournaments, that there was no reason why she could not make her presence known more than marginally at the U.S. Open. And now she had done just that.
Stephens opened her campaign in New York with a 7-5, 6-1 win over 2015 Open finalist Roberta Vinci. She then ousted No. 11 seed Dominika Cibulkova 6-2, 5-7, 6-3. Next, she upended the Australian Ashleigh Barty 6-2, 6-4 and then she knocked out No. 30 seed Julia Georges 6-3, 3-6, 6-1. Those string of victories took Stephens into her quarterfinal duel today against No. 16 seed Anastasija Sevastova, and what a dandy this one was. The 24-year-old started this appointment either distracted or out of sorts. Her opening service game provided evidence that she was not yet in the frame of mind to bear down and compete the way she wanted.
She completely mishandled a forehand swing volley and made two more unforced errors in that game. Stephens had handed the immediate service break to the Latvian, but she managed to get it right back in a long second game. Now Stephens was in sync against a tricky opponent with a good deal of variety in her game, including an often nifty backhand drop shot, accelerated pace off the forehand, a fine two-handed backhand and a first serve released with remarkable accuracy. Stephens, however, was undaunted by facing the No. 16 seed. She held on for 2-1 and prevailed in a three deuce game to lead 3-1. On the second to last point of that game, Sevastova double faulted and then Stephens unleashed one of her trademark forehand winners off a short ball.
Stephens saved a break point on her way to 4-1 and then she had a break point in the sixth game. Sevastova erased it with a flat forehand coaxing a netted sliced backhand from the American. Serving at 4-2, Stephens was down 15-40 but Sevastova sent a backhand drop shot into the net. A miss-hit forehand from Stephens drew an error from Sevastova on the following point. Stephens followed with a gorgeous forehand passing shot winner and moved to 5-2 on an errant forehand from Sevastova, who then held in the eighth game. Serving for the set, Stephens was stable and confident. At 40-15, she went wide in the deuce court with her first serve and set up a forehand winner into an empty court. Stephens had taken the opening set 6-3. She was off and running.
But Sevastova slowed her down with tactical variations and sound ball striking. She started cracking more forehands, slugged it out at times with Stephens but also improved the quality of her drop shots. She broke the American for a 3-1 second set lead, and held for 4-1 with some impressive strategic serving. Stephens simply could not break her markedly improved adversary in that second set. In fact, the American never even had a break point. The sent went deservedly to Sevastova, and so it was one set all. Down to the wire they would do.
At the start of the third set, Sevastova maintained her momentum and kept Stephens off balance with her strategic savvy and her combination of finesse and power. Stephens was unsettled. In the opening game of that final set, Stephens double faulted for 15-30 but held on for 1-0, but the next three games were problematic for her. Sevastova held at 15 for 1-1, and broke at 30 for 2-1 by outhitting Stephens in a crosscourt forehand exchange, concluding that point with an outright winner. Sevastova held at 15 for 3-1. She had won 12 of 16 points in that three game stretch.
Stephens was in a serious bind when she served the fifth game. Down break point, she miss-hit a forehand slightly but her crosscourt shot stayed in and Sevastova was coaxed into a mistake. The American was living precariously, but she held on for 2-3 and then broke at 15 in the next game as Sevastova's game drifted into disarray. Yet Stephens was not out of the woods. She was broken again in the seventh game as her forehand let her down. Sevastova moved to 4-3 and was within striking distance of victory. But Stephens broke right back. Many fans rose to their feet to applaud Stephens, who was back on level terms to 4-4.
Both women held twice to set up a final set tie-break. That was a fitting way to conclude a close contest. Stephens gained the first mini-break for 2-1 with a dazzling winner off her signature forehand. She then won the next point on her serve to move ahead 3-1, only to cautiously steer a backhand wide. Sevastova was soon at 3-3, but Stephens persisted with her fearless pursuit of victory. She outmaneuvered Sevastova to lead 4-3 and then constructed the next point magnificently, finishing it off with a deep crosscourt backhand that was too much for the Latvian. It was 5-3 for the American. But then Stephens somewhat timidly erred on a backhand to make it 5-4. Here Stephens relied on good groundstroke depth to force an error off the forehand from Sevastova, and so it was 6-4, double match point for Stephens. She found her opening and made the most of it, releasing probably her single finest backhand down the line of the match. It landed safely inside the sideline for a winner. Stephens had triumphed 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (4).
Asked about the effusive crowd response on her favor when the match was over, Stephens was deeply appreciative. She said, "It was incredible. I couldn't hear, like, anything. It was so loud in there. But I think that's what tennis players play for. Obviously as an American, playing at your home Slam, to have the crowd like that behind you is incredible. I don't think there is any better feeling or better moment you'll get out of playing tennis. I mean, it was pretty awesome."
When someone enquired about what makes her a better player now than before her foot injury, Stephens responded, "I think my head is a little clearer, if that makes any sense. Before, obviously, I was playing well. I had won a couple of tournaments. But being injured gave me a whole new perspective on tennis, on life and just in general. I think now, as I said before, I just play tennis for a living, and I enjoy it and I have a great time. I don't think there is anything else I would rather be doing."
Reflecting on her time away from the game over the last year, she said, "I don't think it was like one moment [that mattered]. It was just obviously not playing tennis for 11 months. I couldn't walk. I couldn't do all the things I wanted to do. But I did get to hang out with my family and see my little cousin's soccer games and go to wedding and baby showers and stuff... I think it was kind of eye opening. 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."
Her joy in being out there again is strikingly apparent. Sloane Stephens is indeed right where she wants to be, and those who love to report on the sport like me are delighted to have her back among us in the field of competition. She was ranked No. 957 in the world when she played in Washington the first week in August but now, even if she loses to Venus Williams on Thursday, Stephens is projected to be back among the top 35 in the world once more. That is very good news not only for Sloane Stephens but for all of us who appreciate her verve, devotion to her craft and her capacity to come back from dire circumstances and succeed again so handsomely in the world of women's tennis.