Sloane Stephens breaks mould as she savours US Open victory
Other champions talk of their place in the history of the game. They speak in hushed terms of the great players who have gone before them and what their achievements mean. Stephens talks about boob sweat and money. Then again, she is 24 and she has been through a lot.
On Saturday afternoon, she took just one hour to demolish her best friend Madison Keys 6-3, 6-0 and earn £2.87 million. Keys was hopelessly nervous and missed almost every shot she tried to go for while Stephens was solid and unflappable. But as she lifted the silver cup above her head, her mind wandered.
Her first recollection of seeing the famous trophy was when she saw the pictures of past champions that line the walls of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center. She knew that her image would join them soon – and that was a worry.
“Everyone has the cutest photos on the wall in here with this trophy,” Stephens said. “So when I was taking my pictures, I was worried about like my boob sweat. Because I was, like, this is a picture they are probably going to use and I look terrible.”
But embarrassing sweat stains or no, what people will remember about this year’s Open is the way that Stephens and Keys (who has had wrist surgery twice this year) both fought their way from injury to reach the final. And once there, the way that Stephens held her nerve to win and then immediately turned her attentions to her friend and tried to help Keys out of her misery.
After the final point, Keys sobbed on her friend’s shoulder – she was inconsolable. For 20 seconds, Stephens hugged her pal and tried to mop her up. And as they waited for the presentation ceremony to begin, she sat beside Keys and joked and giggled with her like a schoolgirl.
“I told her I wished there could have been a draw because I wish we could both have won,” Stephens said. “I think if it was the other way round, she would do the same for me and I’m going to support her no matter what and I know she’s going to support me no matter what. So to stand with her today is incredible and that’s what real friendship is.”
Stephens had surgery to repair a stress fracture in her foot in January. With her leg in a cast and unable to put weight on her foot for 16 weeks, she was only able to hit a tennis ball again at the end of April – and even then, she was sitting in a chair to do it. In the middle of May, she was able to stand and hit but a return to the tour seemed a million miles away.
Yet she worked and she grafted to come back at Wimbledon. At the end of July, her ranking was No 957 in the world and her biggest worry was over how long her protected ranking – she was ranked No 28 before her injury – would last and how many tournaments she would be able to play.
Six weeks later, she is No 17 in the world and a grand slam champion.
“There are no words to describe how I got here,” she said, “the process it took or anything like that, because if you told someone this story, they’d be, like, ‘That’s insane’.”
Promising to invite Keys to her post-match party – and buy her more than a few drinks – Stephens had found a new taste for winning.
“Did you see that cheque that lady handed me?” Stephens said. “Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will.”
Stephens is definitely a champion like no other.