Column: Sloane Stephens makes a triumphant return to U.S. Open
It was merely four years ago that Sloane Stephens, unseeded and recently returned after an 11-month recovery from foot surgery, turned the U.S. Open women’s competition upside down with her ferocious forehand and her incandescent smile.
She backed up her stunning triumph at Flushing Meadows by winning the Miami Open in 2018 and later reaching the French Open final. She rose to No. 3 in the world, with the promise of better to come.
It never happened.
The Stephens who faced Coco Gauff in a second-round match Wednesday at Arthur Ashe Stadium was unseeded, as she was in 2017, but she wasn’t the same person. Stephens’ smile is still brilliant and her forehand still piercing when she’s focused, as she was in a commanding 6-4, 6-2 victory over 17-year-old Gauff, but she has been changed by losses in too many parts of her life.
Beyond tennis — she came here ranked 66th in the world — she endured the deaths of an aunt, grandmother and grandfather from COVID-19 in a short span late in 2020 and early in 2021. Stuck in a protective bubble at the Australian Open, she viewed her grandparents’ funeral from the physical and emotional distance of Zoom. It was no surprise she lost there in the first round.
Slowly, she has been regaining her old form. Defeating pal Madison Keys in the first round here at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center — as she had in that 2017 U.S. Open final — taxed Stephens emotionally, but she pushed through a third-set tiebreaker. Getting in 84% of her first serves Wednesday and dismantling Gauff’s game represented significant progress for Stephens as she emerges from her frustration and grief.
“I think the pressure is a little bit different when you play two people that you know well. It’s a different type of pressure,” Stephens said. “Playing here at the U.S. Open and playing Americans, it’s very different. But I’m really happy with the two wins. I played good tennis to get them. Yeah, I mean, it’s still only the third round of a Slam, so I have to keep going. But it’s nice to know that I was able to get those two wins with all the pressure and outer things happening.”
Naomi Osaka advanced to the third round of the U.S. Open via walkover when her opponent, Olga Danilovic of Serbia, withdrew before their match.
Stephens, 28, had lost early in each of her last three hardcourt tournaments, but she believed she was recovering her match fitness and poise in tight moments. Gauff, ranked 23rd in the world and seeded No. 21 here, is still fighting her inconsistent serve but is blossoming as a big-time player. Stephens couldn’t be sure she’d reach this level of excellence against Gauff here and now.
But there it was, undeniably, reassuringly, as she dictated play.
“Honestly, I’ve just been taking every day day by day. I’ve been playing a lot better, going in the right direction,” Stephens said. “Obviously it’s tough when you’re unseeded. You have tough first rounds. It’s harder to work your way into a tournament. So I think now I’m at the point where I’m able to be really competitive at the beginning of the tournaments, playing against top players.
“Coming out of the pandemic, it was a rocky road I think for everyone. It hasn’t been too consistent for anyone. I think you’ve just got to ride the wave. Yeah, it’s kind of coming together, which is nice.”
The first set Wednesday went on serve until the ninth game, when one of Gauff’s four double faults gave Stephens the break. Gauff saved one set point but couldn’t save a second one. “She probably hit her forehand the best that I’ve seen in a long time,” Gauff said. “She definitely was the better player tonight.”
Gauff had a break point in the fourth game of the second set but gave it away with a long return and a couple of forehand misses.
“Sloane played really well. I think tonight, I just didn’t play my best tennis that I could have,” said Gauff, who committed 23 forced errors and 25 unforced errors. “All the games were close. I just feel like I could have done a lot better returning and also on, like, pressure points, putting the ball in the court.”
Stephens didn’t let up, gaining another break for 5-2 and serving out the final game at love.
They embraced at the net, knowing each other well enough to have hit together when Gauff was 12 and for Gauff to be invited to Stephens’ 21st birthday party. “I love her. I’m proud of the girl she is and the woman she’s becoming,” Stephens said. “I know there’s going to be great things ahead for her.”
Gauff returned the compliment. “I hope that she can make it all the way to the end,” Gauff said. “I mean, obviously, if you are going to lose, you want to lose to the champion.”
Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune did more than put a respectable fight against No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic on Tuesday at the U.S. Open.
Stephens called Arthur Ashe Stadium “a happy place” for the good memories it holds for her, and she and Gauff were fortunate they completed their match under its secure roof. Heavy rain, high winds, and a tornado warning halted outdoor matches and led to a suspension of play at Louis Armstrong Stadium, where rain and wind intruded through the sides and roof. A state of emergency was declared in New Jersey because of damage caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
“To everyone leaving the @usopen tonight, this weather is scary — please be careful,” Stephens tweeted.
Her concern was spot on. As euphoric as her win was, there are more important things in life. She has learned that this year and in the four years since she held the winner’s trophy here.
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