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By Tucker Verdi
Sloane Stephens isn’t messing around this time.
She teased the tennis world with a semifinal run at the 2013 Australian Open when she was 19, followed by a quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon that same year and a pair of round of 16 appearances at Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows.
But the years that followed brought inconsistent play and a sense of frustration within the tennis community that her potential and the excitement was all for naught.
Then, after 11 months off following foot surgery in January, she went on the run of a lifetime and captured the 2017 US Open title only six weeks removed from being ranked No. 957 in the world.
But the weeks that followed brought the 24-year-old from her highpoint back down to reality. She willed her way to the trophy in New York, but she couldn’t will herself to a long and successful career. Her heart was driven to play and compete, but her body hadn’t truly caught up yet.
She started this year with two loses, including a first round ousting in Melbourne at the Australian Open. She took a month off to recoup, to focus on her game and her body and to put the excitement that had defined her life since the US Open run behind her.
“Obviously, [I had] a little bit of a rough start this year. But I knew that if I put in a little bit of work and just got back to the drawing board, I would be okay.”
Since then, she’s been more than just okay.
In Acapulco, she advanced to the quarterfinals, and in Indian Wells she made it to the third round. That doesn’t sound like dominant tennis from a major champion, but Stephens will point out that she wasn’t playing badly. Instead, she ran into a player who was playing even better. As a matter of fact, both opponents who defeated her went on to the final of each tournament.
No one played better than her in Miami, however. With an errant forehand from Jelena Ostapenko sailing wide, Stephens won 7-6(5), 6-1 and captured her 6th career WTA title and first at the Miami Open.
“I wasn't expecting a title here or anywhere really,” Stephens said on court after the win. “I just wanted to make sure that I got my game back where I wanted to be, and got a hundred percent healthy.
“Good things happen when you put in the work.”
Stephens certainly had to put in the work Saturday afternoon, as she was battling a player in Ostapenko who had yet to drop a set this fortnight. The 20-year-old’s powerful groundstrokes – most especially, the dangerous two-handed backhand – had helped her take down two top 10 opponents in the same tournament for the first time in her career.
Ostapenko came into the match holding serve on 75% of her service games. Pit that against Stephens, who’d broken opponents on 66% of their service games, and the young Latvian couldn’t overcome the American’s dynamite return game. Ostapenko held serve only twice in the match.
Stephens fell victim to Ostapenko’s trademark sideline winners from that formidable backhand several times. For the most part, however, the speedy 5’7” Florida native’s defensive effort helped her get a racket on even the most seemingly unreturnable balls. She knew that if she kept the ball in play, Ostapenko’s aggressive style of play would lead her to make an error eventually. Ostapenko had 48 unforced errors in the match, compared to just 25 winners.
“I was just trying to hang tough,” said Stephens, smiling, on her game plan to survive Ostapenko’s groundstrokes. “I knew that obviously she plays a really hard game and she makes sure she goes for her shots.
“As long as I [hung tough] and took my opportunities when I could, I'd do pretty well.”
She did well, indeed, hanging tough despite being broken 5 times herself. But the new World No. 9 come Monday – the first top-10 ranking of her career – clutched the trophy in the end. The last women’s champion at Crandon Park is one born just 35 miles away in Plantation, Florida.
Next year, the Miami Open’s new home at Hard Rock Stadium will be even closer to home for Stephens, only 15 miles. And there’s no reason not to think she won’t be back in this moment come 2019, because Sloane Stephens isn’t messing around this time.
Sloane Stephens is here to stay.