Can anybody recall a more incredible comeback tale than the one Sloane Stephens completed on Saturday at the US Open?
The American turned to her entourage with her hand covering her mouth after Madison Keys netted a final forehand, before putting her hands on her hips with an almost stern look before finally breaking into that radiant smile.
She’d won a lopsided final 6-3 6-0 over her friend and compatriot, just the latest unexpected event – we were surely all expecting a closer contest – to transpire in the past month for Stephens, who just a few weeks ago was ranked outside the world’s top 950.
Plenty of players have returned after adversity and absence to win the game’s biggest titles. Kim Clijsters, in just her third event back after more that two years away and the birth of her first child, won the 2009 US Open. Serena Williams spent 11 months out of the game across 2010 and 2011 due to frightening blood clots and a haematoma, and by 2012 was winning majors again.
Yet both of them were already established champions with Grand Slam trophies and the No.1 ranking on their CVs before their time away.
Perhaps Stephens’ tale is more akin to Sam Stosur’s, who was sidelined for almost a year from 2007 to 2008 with a multitude of complications stemming from Lyme Disease, before returning to win the US Open in 2011. Like Stephens, many had tipped Stosur for Grand Slam success and her talent was undeniable; it just took the Australian a little longer to get there.
Stephens did it just five events events into her comeback, having never before been in a major final or inside the top 10.
She’ll rise to world No.17 after this triumph, after languishing at No.957 in the first week of August.
“It’s probably going to take a couple weeks, months (to sink in), I don’t know. It’s like so not real. I feel this is a dream. Like, am I just going to wake up and be, like, it didn’t happen?” she said.
“Look at that thing (the trophy). That’s incredible. I just think it’s very cool. It hasn’t sunk in yet, but hopefully in a little while once I, like, am able to lay down and relax and think about it, I’ll realise that I really am the US Open champion.”
After the Rio 2016 Olympics, Stephens was sidelined until Wimbledon 2017 – almost 11 months – as she underwent left foot surgery and began the slow, gruelling process of rehabilitation.
As recently as April, she still couldn’t walk, captured goofing around with Keys wearing her “peg leg” during a Tennis Channel segment.
— Tennis Channel (@TennisChannel) April 3, 2017
When she finally returned, her level was scratchy; straight-sets losses followed in the first round at both Wimbledon and Washington DC. Yet come Toronto and Cincinnati, she was a player transformed, reaching back-to-back Premier 5 semifinals and vaulting back inside the top 100.
Then there was her fabulous fortnight at Flushing Meadows, where she beat seeds Dominika Cibulkova, Julia Goerges and Anastasija Sevastova before upsetting Venus Williams in a thrilling semifinal.
“There is no words to describe how I got here, the process it took or anything like that, because if you told someone this story, they’d be, like, That’s insane,” she said.
“When I had surgery, I was not thinking that I would be anywhere near a US Open title. Nor did I think I was going to be anywhere near the top 100. I was worried about my protected ranking, and I was worried about using my protected ranking to get in here. I used both of them already for Grand Slams and tournaments and to be able to play. I was thinking about all the wrong things.
“Once I kind of let that go and just realised that whatever is meant to be is going to be, that I worked hard to get here and, you know, that’s that, then I think a lot of that stress was relieved and I was able to just play free and run and compete and just get out there and get after it every match.
“I’m just happy to be here.”
So much has been made of Stephens’ mental transformation in this second phase of her career.
In phase one, pre-injury, Stephens was always a hyper-talented, athletic prospect seen as the successor to Venus and Serena Williams – a sense further heightened when she stunned Serena in the quarterfinals of Australian Open 2013, aged just 19.
But accompanying all that talent was a moody, disinterested streak – there were many times when it looked as if she simply didn’t want to be out there playing tennis. At times struggling with motivation and consistency, she rose to No.11 in late 2013, but never higher.
Tennis legend Chris Evert made a point of identifying the mental and emotional breakthroughs Stephens had made when the young American joined the ESPN panel to discuss her unlikely triumph.
“I think just having time off, realising that life is so good, life is so precious and I think being on the court – I play tennis for a living, I do what I love every single day. And I think once that kind of clicked like, yes, tennis is difficult, there’s always difficult moments, but in life you have to get through those difficult moments,” Stephens concurred.
“I think for me when I’m on the court if I can just enjoy it and keep a positive attitude, so many great things can come from that. And I think once you embrace that – obviously there’s gonna be tough times – but once you embrace all of the good times, it makes things a lot easier.”
The victory over Serena was once considered her career-defining moment.
That pales in comparison with what she achieved this past fortnight, crowning her campaign on Saturday in New York with the biggest victory of her life.
“This is a whole new level guys,” she laughed on ESPN.
“I think a lot of life has happened (since the Serena match in 2013). I was such a baby when that happened, it was so overwhelming, it was an experience. And I think now, it’s obviously gonna be overwhelming, there are gonna be tough times but … I’m looking forward to it.
“I’ve grown a lot since then and I have a great team and I’m actually looking forward to it.”
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