NEW YORK — Sloane Stephens had a rough start to her season this year. Entering the Australian Open, her ranking had dropped to No. 40, and dropped even further after she was eliminated in the first round there by Yulia Putintseva, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.
It was a crushing blow, following what had been a brutal month for her, personally. In January, Stephens announced on Twitter that she had lost three family members in the span of a few weeks, after her grandmother and aunt died after battles with COVID-19, and her grandfather died a week later, for reasons she did not disclose. She attended their funerals via teleconference, from Australia, while quarantining in a hotel room for 14 days.
When she returned from Australia, she did a complete reset, physically and mentally. She lost weight, started working with a new coach and changed her mindset. Previously preoccupied on her results – her ranking, which was dwindling steadily – she decided to focus instead on herself.
“I made sure that I was happy,” she said, in a post-match press conference after her first-round win at the U.S. Open. “I took care of myself, my body, my mind, just really tried to gather myself again and not really worry too much about results and what was happening around me.
“I didn't see results right away. I still haven't, let's just be real. I'm 60 in the world, it's not like I've seen some dramatic, amazing thing happen. But I think, when you are happy with yourself, it gives you opportunity to have that success and have those accomplishments.”
Anyone who watched her first three matches of this U.S. Open would likely agree that for Stephens, something is working. At moments, she looked like the Sloane Stephens who unexpectedly won the 2017 U.S. Open: confident, aggressive, dominant. In the first round, when tasked with facing her close friend, No. 42 Madison Keys, she delivered a gutsy win, seizing a tense third-set tiebreaker that initially seemed to be within Keys’ grasp. Stephens won it on her third match point: 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (7).
She followed that win with a swift dismantling of No. 22 Coco Gauff, taking the match, 6-4, 6-2, in just 66 minutes. Gauff said after the match that Stephens’ forehand – for which she is renowned – was the best she’d ever seen it. She looked as good as anyone in the tournament, and carried that same confidence with her into her Friday afternoon match against No. 16 Angelique Kerber, but it proved to not be enough.
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Kerber had a higher ranking entering the match (Stephens is currently listed at No. 66) but Stephens had the advantage in their head-to-head record (5-1). In a battle of two former U.S. Open champs, Stephens took the first set, 7-5, but Kerber took the last two, 6-2, 6-3.
Ultimately, it was consistency that gave Kerber the edge in the final set, as Stephens made a few costly mistakes, losing the last two points of her match on a backhand and a forehand unforced error.
“It was really a tough match,” Kerber said. “I mean, playing against Sloane it's always a tough battle. I lost the last few matches against her, so I was ready to have really tough fight.
“After the first set where she played really well, especially in important moments, I was just trying to stay in the match, being ready for every single ball.”
Now, Stephens will turn to the future matches. An earlier version of herself might have dwelled on such a loss to Kerber, but in 2021, she seems to have more faith in a return to form.
“It may not happen now,” she said after her first-round match. “It may happen in the middle or end of next year. I don't know. But at this rate, I know I'm not a bad tennis player. At some point, it will click.”