For more than a decade the discussion over who will inherit the Williams sisters’ place at the forefront of American tennis has been a source of no small consternation to anyone in the US with even a passing interest in the sport. Television commentators and dedicated fans have often broached the subject the same way conservationists talk about global warming, as a sort of event horizon beyond which nothing is certain besides a vague feeling of dread.
Sloane Stephens’ improbable run to last year’s US Open title, where she became the first American outside the Williams family to win a major, men’s or women’s, since 2003, did not put an end to the conversation which, with Venus and Serena in the winter of their careers, is as relevant as ever. But, as the effervescent Floridian returns to Flushing Meadows to defend her crown, the tenor surrounding the inquiry is rosier than it has been in years.
Stephens had been sidelined for 11 months by injury and was ranked 957th in the world a month before last year’s tournament, only to survive a wildly unpredictable fortnight in which the top eight women’s seeds were eliminated by the quarter-finals for the first time at any major tournament in the Open era.
That was enough for some critics to dismiss Stephens’ triumph as a fluke but the 25-year-old has over the past year backed up her maiden slam with a formidable 2018 campaign that has included the Miami title, a run to the French Open final and a runner-up finish in Montreal earlier this month. She enters this year’s US Open ranked No 3 in the world, marking the first time any American woman not named Venus or Serena has cracked the top five since Lindsay Davenport 12 years ago.
And now the real fun begins. “A lot of stress, a lot of pressure,” Stephens said on Friday after an early practice before throngs of onlookers, as she took measure of an unfamiliar role: defending champion. “I’m just going to go out and handle it as best I can, just try to play my best. It’s a completely new tournament this year.”
She added: “There’s just more to do. Everyone would say winning a grand slam, there’s just a lot more expected of you. I think that is a little bit hard to adjust to. In general, just less days for myself. I think I handled it the best that I could. I’ve just made the most of it, tried to keep my tennis first. That’s really all you can do.”
Stephens rose to prominence as part of a promising class of US teenagers – including Irina Falconi, Madison Keys, Christina McHale and Coco Vandeweghe – who were talented enough to make noise in the first week of majors but not reliable enough at the business end. That all changed at the 2013 Australian Open when Stephens delivered the defining win of her career to that point, rallying from a set and a break down in a quarter-final upset of Serena Williams. It marked the first time Williams, then 31, had lost to an American younger than herself.
Stephens would lose two days later in the semi-finals to the eventual champion, Victoria Azarenka, but the Williams scalp elevated her profile considerably back home. It was the first of six consecutive grand slam events where Stephens reached the fourth round or better, a span in which her ranking rose as high as No 11.
Progress from there to last year’s breakthrough in Queens was anything but a straight line. Even as she won her first four WTA titles during an eight-month span starting in 2015, Stephens’ performance at the majors began to regress. Then came the injury that abruptly ended her 2016 season: a stress fracture that required surgery and an 11-month lay-off.
In terms of style Stephens has always defied easy categorization. She is not endowed with devastating power but is more than solid off both wings even if she favors a big looping forehand for winners. Her speed is not blinding but the American is still quick off the mark and somehow seems never out of position.
That athleticism and ability to retrieve powerful groundstrokes, paired with a matured variety and understanding of point construction, lends itself to a defensive baseline tack that can read as passive. But at her best she is more than a traditional counterpuncher. No single element of the package grades as exceptional but, when everything is clicking, Stephens is as complete as it gets.
The even bigger mystery exists in Stephens’ mind. There is a coolness about her that has a Rorschach quality to it: interpreted as composure and sangfroid when she is winning, as indifference when the chips are down. One thing is for certain: she has earned a reputation for playing her best in big tournaments, even if there has been a nagging tendency to follow it up with first-round flops at smaller events.
In her first three full years on the tour after cracking the top 100 Stephens’ win-loss record in the majors was 30-12 but a pedestrian 51-48 in all other tournaments.
After her career-changing US Open triumph, Stephens lost her next eight matches in a row, including her first-rounder at the Australian Open while dogged by a sore knee. But she came back to win the title in Miami and surprised everyone all over again with a run to the French Open final. It almost feels as if the search for consistency is more important than wins and losses, since that is all it seems that could prevent her from reaching the No 1 ranking.