US Open 2018: Sloane Stephens faces uphill task to defend title with Serena Williams back in draw

The miracle of Flushing Meadows, that’s perhaps the best way to sum up Sloane Stephens and the unexpected title she would win at US Open in 2017. By no means was she an unknown entity to the tennis world. Four years earlier, she had beaten Serena Williams to reach the semi-finals of the Australian Open. Great things were expected in the future from the Florida native, but not much when the tour descended upon New York for those epic two weeks last year. Especially, since Stephens was playing only her fifth tournament after an 11-month layoff due to injury.

With a foot injury surgically remedied, Stephens returned to the circuit ranked 957 in the world, and just 69 days later, she beat her good friend Madison Keys 6-3, 6-0 in the most unlikeliest of finals. Suddenly, the 25-year-old, who became the first unseeded player since Kim Clijsters (US Open, 2009) to win a Slam, had the spotlight, a glittering trophy and a cheque of US$ 3.7 million.

Sloane Stephens of the United States reacts after winning her match against Elina Svitolina of Ukraine (not pictured) in the Rogers Cup tennis tournament. Reuters

Sloane Stephens endured eight consecutive first-round exits after winning the 2017 US Open. Reuters

“Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will,” she joked with a reporter after the win.

It was the feel-good story in a season of stirring comebacks, but Stephens failed to convert it into something bigger and better. The win at her home major was followed by eight consecutive first round defeats. The legendary Chris Evert told ESPN in January that, “I question whether she has a burning desire to win more Grand Slams or be No. 1.”

However, as the new season has panned out, Stephens has shown glimpses of her immense talent, but not quite as consistently as one would expect. There is a danger that she may fall into the list of the ‘one-Slam wonders’ that have played the game. Now, as the tour moves to New York once again, Stephens has a chance to break away from that mould.

The setting is all too familiar. She will play a home Slam, and while she is one of the contenders for the title, she won’t be stifled with expectations. That crown of thorns may well once again be worn by American legend Serena Williams, who is one major away from equaling Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 singles majors.

"We play a very long season," said the World No. 3 after the Wimbledon Championships this year. "There's no one that is going to win every single week. Even the No. 1 player in the world loses. Sometimes people overreact, say 'I need a new coach, new physio.' I believe that if you just work on yourself and focus on yourself, you'll allow yourself to have success, no matter what else is going on around you. Life does go on."

Since the torrid run towards the end of last season, she lost in the first round of the Australian Open. However, she went on to pull off the second biggest win of her career when she won the crown at the Miami Masters, beating four major winners — Garbine Muguruza, Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka and Jelena Ostapenko — on the way.

Then, there was the stellar performance at the French Open, where only the sheer tenacity of Simona Halep could stop her in the final. Despite the defeat, she had put on a show that was reminiscent of the astonishing charge she orchestrated at the US Open last year.

Veteran tennis writer Steve Tignor described her play at Roland Garros: “She used her speed to defend, and her strength to counterpunch judiciously. Until the second set of the final, no one could lay a glove on her. It was the same game that Stephens used to win the Open last year.”

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Updated Date: Aug 24, 2018 09:06:26 IST

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