In 2013 Sloane Stephens reached the semifinals at the Australian Open, the fourth round of the French Open, the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the fourth round at the U.S. Open. She was a talented 20-year-old who looked to be the successor to Venus and Serena Williams. Didn’t happen.
Inconsistencies, injuries, and just the unexplainable stood between her and the summit of the game.
On Tuesday, in a comeback season, Stephens continued the highest ascent she has ever made at the U.S. Open. She defeated Anastasija Sevastova in a dramatic third-set tiebreak to reach the semifinals of the Open. It was 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (4), with the Ashe Stadium crowd doing its best to pull Stephens through.
After a left foot injury suffered at the Rio Olympics ultimately required surgery, Stephens missed nearly 11 months of competition. She returned at Wimbledon and surprisingly made two semifinals during the American hard court season.
“If someone would have told me when I started at Wimbledon that I’d be in the semifinals or making three semifinals back to back, I would have said they’re crazy,” Stephens said. “Just happy to be playing really well and happy that my foot is good and I don’t have any pain and my body is holding up.”
Her game on Tuesday wasn’t overwhelming, but it was efficient. She didn’t do much on her serve, didn’t put Sevastova on her back foot, but the tiebreak outlined what she did best. At 3-3 Stephens kept chasing down balls and that led to two rally errors by Sevastova and a 5-3 lead. After Stephens netted a forehand, Sevastova netted one for 6-4 and on her first match point Stephens blasted a forehand winner.
“It’s tough to play her. She moves well. She plays aggressive. Her forehand is great,” Sevastova said. “I thought I had her somewhere in the beginning of the third. I was in control. But I think she is all-around player. She played good at the net. She finished the points well at the net. Returns well. She’s a contender here, I think. I hope.”
The scrappy Sevastova had taken out Maria Sharapova in her previous match, and she’s no stranger to the later rounds and the bigger courts at the National Tennis Center. She made it to the quarterfinals last year, losing to Caroline Wozniacki.
While the crowd was on Stephens’ side, they weren’t rooting against the Latvian Sevastova.
“It’s U.S. Open. She’s American. You have to understand that,” Sevastova said. “The crowd was in the match. In the end of the match, it was so loud. I never played in such a loud stadium. It was cool to play.”
It was a singular feeling for her, perhaps the very reason to play the game. She was out of tennis for two years with back problems, returning in 2013 and working her way back up the game’s ladder. The Open has been her best Grand Slam, the memories of Ashe Stadium permanent.
“You have to be there to have this feeling, I think. It’s tough to explain,” Sevastova said. “You’re like alone and everybody is screaming. Also during rallies, during crazy points. Yeah, it’s crazy. All the cameras, like the Spidercam moving around you. It’s an experience you never forget, I think, in your life.”
Stephens won’t forget it.
“As an American, playing at your home slam, to have the crowd like that behind you, is incredible,” Stephens said. “I don’t think there is any better feeling or better moment you’ll get out of playing tennis.”