From the Couch to the US Open Finals: The Amazing Rise of Sloane Stephens

Mary Pilon@MaryPilonContributor ISeptember 8, 2017

Sloane Stephens, of the United States, reacts after defeating Venus Williams, of the United States, during the semifinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Seth Wenig/Associated Press

You can name stadiums after cultural icons—in this case, Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe—but there's no guarantee there will be women or athletes of color to compete generations later within their walls. They blazed a trail in a sport that had long been ruled by sexist and racist ideology, pieces of which are still endured by athletes competing today.

But by Thursday night, the same tennis world that had once spurned female and black players was now celebrating someone who is both: Sloane Stephens, who at 24 had secured a berth in her first-ever women's singles final by defeating her friend and legend in the sport Venus Williams in three sets, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

"I'm super happy to be in a Grand Slam final," Stephens said Thursday night. "This is what every player dreams about," she added.

Stephens, along with Williams, CoCo Vandeweghe and Madison Keys, was part of the first all-American women's singles final four in 32 years in a Grand Slam tournament, and for the first time ever, three of them were black (though Keys, who has a white mother and black father, doesn't identify herself as any particular race). With Serena Williams bowing out of the tournament to give birth to her daughter, Stephens was understandably cast as a member of a potential next generation of American tennis stars while still having to battle against her predecessors to climb the rankings.

A year ago, Stephens withdrew from the U.S. Open due to a foot injury, unsure if or how she was ever going to play tennis again. She watched the Australian Open from her couch, her leg ensconced in a large cast. When she was eventually able to move again, she hit tennis balls from a seated position. While her teammates were competing, she trotted around doing tournament commentary on what she described as a "peg leg."

Sloane Stephens of the US receives medical attention and retires with a wrist injury competing against Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic during their twelth session women's singles match on day seven of the Hopman Cup tennis tournament in Perth on Janua
TONY ASHBY/Getty Images

The hiatus forced Stephens to watch her ranking plummet to the 900s before this summer's hardcourt season. After a fierce rebound, she fought her way back to entering the U.S. Open seeded 83rd.

"When something gets taken away from you, you kind of are forced to deal with your situation," Stephens said last Friday after defeating Ashleigh Barty of Australia in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4. "Having surgery, being on that peg leg, not being able to live my life the way I wanted to, I don't know if it was like a humbling experience, but it was more of just like—how do you say that—realization? I just needed to just appreciate all the things I had in my life."

More players like Stephens will continue to rise as beneficiaries of those who came before and as pioneers in their own right. Sports has long proven its potential as an escape from a world of dreary headlines and malaise, and the women's draw this season has posed no difference. So engrossing has it been that maybe the players don't even see it.

Stephens is a product of not only tremendous athleticism but class and decorum. The all-American semifinals came after years of fretting about the health of the sport in the U.S. beyond Serena Williams, and Stephens was among those who joked and rolled her eyes at questions about it.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 07:  Sloane Stephens of the United States celebrates a point against Venus Williams of the United States during their Women's Singles Semifinal match on Day Eleven during the 2017 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tenn
Abbie Parr/Getty Images

"The proof is in the pudding," she said Thursday night. "American women and men have stepped up in an amazing way."

In many ways, one could argue that Stephens was poised for athletic greatness. Her mother, a collegiate swimmer at Boston University, was the first African-American female to be named First Team All-American in Division I history and her father played in the NFL. He was killed in a car accident in September 2009, which put a teenage Stephens in the devastating position of having to decide whether to compete in the U.S. Open or go to Louisiana for his memorial services. What's more, she learned around the time of his death of pending 1994 charges of sexual assault that had not been disclosed to her at the time.

Stephens has spoken in the past of how losing her father at a young age meant she has competed for much of her career knowing he wouldn't see it. Her run in this year's U.S. Open is another bittersweet moment in a tournament that's still understandably emotional.

Although Stephens had defeated Venus Williams before, at the 2015 French Open, the 37-year-old cast an imposing barrier to the finals. She has had a stellar season and came into the Open ranked ninth in the world with people in awe that she can regularly clean the floor with players who had once had her poster on their walls as children. She's the fourth-oldest Grand Slam semifinalist in the Open era; when Williams last won the U.S. Open women's singles title in 2001, Google was still a privately-held company and the first camera phone hadn't hit the mass market. Stephens was eight years old and hadn't even started playing tennis.

Sloane Stephens, left, and Venus Williams following their 2015 French Open match
Sloane Stephens, left, and Venus Williams following their 2015 French Open matchMIGUEL MEDINA/Getty Images

On Thursday night, Stephens recounted that some of her earliest memories of the sport were watching Williams play at Wimbledon. (To be fair, it's also a testament to how young Williams was when she entered tennis' most vaunted stage, having turned pro in 1994 at the age of 14.)

For Stephens, she recognized early in the tournament that her year away from the sport forever altered her relationship with it.

"This is not life or death," she said. "I think it's hard to realize that when you're out there playing, because there's a lot riding on it: prize money, points, so many things go into it.

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

"I do this for fun. I love tennis. There's not a lot of people that can say, like, 'Oh, yeah, I go and play tennis every day, and sweat, see all my friends, hang out, work out and take pictures.' That's it, right? I think I have it pretty good."

Then Thursday night there she was on the court, claiming victory over an athletic and cultural legend, in a stadium named after one: Arthur Ashe.

Stephens landed the final point and raised both arms in the air, not entirely sure how she had pulled it off, either. Williams smiled. Stephens was blunt. "I don't know how I got here," Stephens said to the crowd in Ashe. "Just hard work."

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

The women's final will be on Saturday, and Stephens will face Keys, one of her closest friends on the tour. It's been a long trip for Stephens from her couch and a long trip for the sport, but it's also bigger than that.

"The only thing I had to rely on was my fight and making sure every time I was on the court I gave my all," Stephens said. "When I am on the court, I realize 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.

"Whether I win the tournament or not, like, I'm a Grand Slam finalist, and no one will ever be able to take that away from me."