Sloane Stephens was out of tennis for approximately 11 months because of a stress fracture in her left foot. While she was frustrated on the sideline, she was able to focus on her family, cheering at her little cousin’s soccer games, spending time with her grandmother who had recently suffered a stroke, and attending weddings and baby showers.
The injury forced the 24-year-old American to withdraw from the 2016 U.S. Open and while she certainly kept busy — Stephens had a reporting/commentating stint for the Tennis Channel during Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston while rehabbing — it reignited Stephens’ passion for the game.
She longed for the court. Stephens returned from her injury at Wimbledon in July, and turned a first-round loss to Alison Riske into motivation as she continues her meteoric rise through the rankings as summer has come to a close. Stephens, whose WTA ranking improved from as low as No. 957 to No. 83 entering the 2017 U.S. Open, is in the semifinals of tennis’ final Grand Slam for the first time. She faces No. 9 seed and two-time U.S. Open champion Venus Williams on Sept. 7.
“My head is a little clearer,” Stephens said after her 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(4) quarterfinal win against No. 16-seed Anastasija Sevastova. “Before, obviously I was playing well, won a couple of tournaments, but being injured gave me a whole new perspective on tennis, on life and just in general. I play tennis for a living, I enjoy it, I have a great time and I don’t think there’s anything else I’d rather be doing.”
Following a disappointing straight-set loss at Wimbledon, Stephens lost in the Round of 32 at Washington, D.C., but earned consecutive semifinal appearances in Toronto and Cincinnati. Her semifinal appearance at the U.S. Open is projected to vault her into the WTA top 35, and she can get even higher should she advance to the final and/or win the tournament.
“It’s incredible, amazing,” Stephens said. “If someone told me when I started at Wimbledon that I’d be making three semifinals consecutively, I would have said they are crazy. I’m happy to be playing really well. So many positives to take out of it for myself, personally.”
Not only is Stephens’ success beneficial on a personal level, but also for women’s tennis in America as a whole. She is one of four American women (Venus Williams, CoCo Vandeweghe, Madison Keys) to advance to the U.S. Open quarterfinals; a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since 2002.
“We were going through a time where we didn’t have that many people, but now I think there’s 14 women in the top 100,” Stephens said. “I think that we’re doing great and American tennis is headed in the right direction — men and women.”
It seems nothing is bothering Stephens at this point. Her foot feels good and she isn’t in pain. Her first time playing in Arthur Ashe Stadium took some time to get used to, but she controlled her emotions and fed off the pro-Stephens crowd.
Well, there is one thing that can throw her off her game: bugs. Stephens had to evade a intruder at her press conference Tuesday, ducking out of her chair and brandishing her sneaker as protection.
“I don’t like bugs,” she said. “They’re so disgusting; I don’t know where that came from.”