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People: Potential fulfilled after adding bite to defence

Sloane Stephens savouring sweet success after drubbing compatriot Madison Keys in the US Open final on Saturday.
Sloane Stephens savouring sweet success after drubbing compatriot Madison Keys in the US Open final on Saturday.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Sloane Stephens, who will rise to No. 17 from No. 83 today in tennis' world rankings, is the first American woman not named Williams to win a Grand Slam singles title since Jennifer Capriati in the 2002 Australian Open.

The 24-year-old also joins an esteemed list of African-American winners of the US championship, which began with Althea Gibson 60 years ago.

Stephens was born in Plantation, Florida, in 1993, the year before Venus Williams turned professional (Serena Williams would follow suit in 1995).

But in her early years, she was a fan of the powerful and extroverted Kim Clijsters, who was one of the many who congratulated Stephens in person on Saturday.

Stephens' mother, Sybil Smith, was a leading swimmer at Boston University. Her father is John Stephens, who was a running back with the New England Patriots.

Her parents split up early in her life, and she had little contact with her dad. But she was re-establishing a relationship with him before he died in a car crash in September 2009.

SIMPLY SUPER

One day I'm going to, like, be able to show my kids that I won the US Open. Like, how many people can say that? Not many, and they already engraved my name on the locker. Like, 'Hello. This is awesome'.

SLOANE STEPHENS, appreciating the enormity of her achievement.

Stephens was playing in the junior event at the US Open at the time. She left the tournament to attend the funeral and then returned.

She has long been considered a potential Grand Slam champion and has worked with some of tennis' leading coaches, including Nick Saviano, Paul Annacone, Thomas Hogstedt and, through the US Tennis Association, David Nainkin.

She reached the Australian Open semi-finals in 2013, beating Serena in the quarter-finals. But she struggled with consistency and played with a style that many analysts considered too defensive.

She has come into her own by finding a renewed passion for the game after an 11-month injury layoff. "There's a different look in her eyes since she came back," said Chris Evert, a former No. 1 who has known Stephens since she was a junior player.

She is projecting calm between the lines now, but calm is not nearly enough to defuse big talents like Venus and Madison Keys, the two Americans whom Stephens beat in the final two rounds in New York.

She is also striking the right balance between defence and offence, rarely overhitting and putting ample topspin on her big forehand, which gives her plenty of margin for error. Time and again on Saturday, she rebooted points with her defence, resisting Keys' direct attacks with counterpunching and lunging slices.

But she also was able to land direct hits when she needed to, coming up with two huge and precise passing shots as she broke Keys in the second game of the second set.

She is the lowest-ranked player to win the women's title at the US Open in the Open era, which began in 1968. Clijsters, returning after the birth of her first child, won the event in 2009 without a ranking.

"One day I'm going to, like, be able to show my kids that I won the US Open," Stephens said with the trophy next to her. "Like, how many people can say that? Not many, and they already engraved my name on the locker. Like, 'Hello. This is awesome'."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2017, with the headline 'Potential fulfilled after adding bite to defence'. Print Edition | Subscribe