This story appears in the Sept. 18, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
By a certain point, what with all the milestones and landmarks celebrated at the 2017 U.S. Open, it seemed fair to wonder: Can a sport overdose on significance? Because if you weren’t hearing about the 60th anniversary of Althea Gibson’s first U.S. title, you were hearing a speech about the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King’s. Or reliving, with the coming release of a new movie, King’s barrier-busting victory over Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973. Or marking, with four U.S. women in the semifinals, the seeming revival of American might.
That, of course, was underpinned by the historic fact that three of those women are African-American, which led to the first major final ever contested by two black players not named Williams. With the crowning of Sloane Stephens, 24, as U.S. Open champion, the generation inspired by Venus and Serena had, at last, arrived.
“Tennis has gotten out of the country clubs,” says Chris Evert. “The barriers have really been torn down. It’s not a snobby, white, rich sport anymore.”
Indeed, from the junior ranks to the President’s Box to the milling crowds, the changing face of American tennis was on display all fortnight. There, grinning after guiding Stephens—injured and unable to even walk until April 18, ranked 957th in July—to a 6–3, 6–0 demolition of Madison Keys in last Saturday’s final, was her 36-year-old African-American coach, Kamau Murray, whose Chicago academy has a 70% black enrollment and will soon move into a new, $15 million facility. There were Stephens and Keys, both in tears, hugging forever at net; there was Stephens just before the trophy presentation, crossing to Keys’s side and pulling her chair close to her friend’s. And then, just as Stephens and Keys were chatting and giggling, Katrina Adams, the first black president of the U.S. Tennis Association, leaned down and gave each a kiss on the cheek.
“Many, many things have changed,” said Leslie Allen outside the player’s lounge on Saturday. As Allen—the first black woman to win a top-level tour event, in 1981, after Althea Gibson’s last victory in ’58—ticked off other black faces now in power within the U.S. tennis establishment, a door opened. Fresh from the stands, Stephens’s mother, Sybil Smith, stepped out and hugged former pro Kyle Copeland-Muse, who, at a 2005 USTA clinic tabbed the 12-year-old Stephens a star.
“I told you,” Copeland-Muse said, laughing.
“You told us!” Smith agreed.
The two hugged and laughed, and the sweet moment served as a reminder. USTA marketers and media sure love the big picture, and legacy-enthralled tennis fans sure love the idea that by winning his 16th major on Sunday with a 6–3, 6–3, 6–4 win over Kevin Anderson of South Africa, Rafael Nadal, 31, showed that he’s ready to chase old Roger Federer and his 19 titles for at least another year.
But for most players a major tournament is an intensely personal walk, full of little paybacks, private motives, highs and lows that can alternate by the minute. Nadal’s less-than-grandiose mission this year was to win his first hard-court major in four years, to play at a level only he can gauge; becoming No. 1 seemed more a by-product than a goal. For Stephens, meanwhile, Flushing Meadows elicits highly charged feelings. It was there, in 2009, that she learned that her father, former Patriots running back John Stephens, had been killed.
“I was sitting right in front of the transportation tent, and my sister called me and was, like, ‘Dad died last night in a car accident,’ ” Stephens said late Saturday night. “I was hysterical.”
Her parents divorced when she was an infant; Sloane didn’t meet John until she was 13. But they then spoke often by phone and grew close; she was 16 and preparing to play in the U.S. Open junior tournament when she got the news. Hungry for information, Sloane hit the Internet and discovered that her father had pleaded guilty to rape in 1994—and was facing another sexual assault charge when, at 43, he lost control of his truck and hit a tree near Shreveport, La. She attended his funeral and flew back the next day. After winning her second-round match in three sets, she lost and went home.
“And I didn’t think I would ever be able to regroup here, at this place, because it was just filled with so many emotions—and not good ones,” Sloane said. “If someone told me when my dad died that I would end up winning the U.S. Open years later, I would’ve been, like, You’re crazy. It is crazy. But I’ve had so many great moments here, and so many sad moments here, that winning, here, makes it even more special.”
Keys, who has a black father and a white mother, never remarked on the racial import of this year’s Open. But Stephens called their advance into the semis—with Venus and CoCo Vandeweghe—“amazing for me and Maddie. We are following in [Venus’s] footsteps; she’s represented the game so well as an African-American woman. Maddie and I are here to join her and represent just as well.”
Even so, Stephens seemed more engaged with her own narrative—which she calls “insane”—and her mom, the first black swimmer to be named a first-team All-America, at Boston University in 1988, rightly sees as progress. “It’s incredible that it’s happened,” Smith says, “but these women have worked really hard for what they’ve accomplished, and color really has nothing to do with it at the top.”
Such drive was conspicuously absent from Stephens’s early career. Great speed and heavy groundstrokes made her one of the tour’s more dangerous counterpunchers; a dramatic win over Serena Williams at the 2013 Australian Open, coupled with a whip-smart wit, made her the Next Big Thing in American tennis. But what with ripping Serena publicly (“They think she’s so friendly,” she told ESPN The Magazine in May 2013. “That’s not reality!”) and an on-court demeanor that, as Evert says, often betrayed “a lack of fight and blasé body language,” her first dance with fame became a slog. She shuttled through coaches—Roger Smith, Paul Annacone, Nick Saviano—and whispers spread about her work ethic.
“Before, you weren’t sure how deep Sloane was going to dig,” says two-time U.S. Open winner Tracy Austin. “She wasn’t always a battler.”
Late in 2015, Stephens began working with Murray, whose academy has sent 46 kids to colleges on tennis scholarships. “A lot of these players have warm-and-fuzzy relationships with their coaches, but we weren’t friends then,” Murray says. “It was like, ‘Go to the gym, go to the court, and then I’ll go to my hotel.’
“I expect every ounce of effort, and we’re still working on it. I think we’ve made dramatic improvement on not quitting. I’m from Chicago: Nothing is given, and everything is earned. We come to do work.”
Stephens won their second tournament together, the ASB Classic in Auckland in January 2016, and followed that with victories in Acapulco and Charleston. But she also began feeling pain in her left foot, and by the Rio Olympics could barely walk; an MRI revealed a stress fracture. Four months of rest helped, but when Stephens tried playing in an Australian Open tune-up in Sydney last January, the pain resumed. Surgery, which involved grafting bone from her heel, was set for Jan. 23. Ordered to stay off her foot completely for 12 weeks, she was carried upstairs by her mom and brother Shawn Farrell. Stephens feared her career was done.
“It was horrifying,” she says.
Keys, who was also sidelined then, by left-wrist surgery, was one of the few forces sustaining Stephens. “When Sloane was down and out, Madison was messaging her and calling and FaceTiming her: What are you doing? And Sloane would do the same,” Smith says. “I feel good that in this very solitary sport, my daughter has someone to rely on.”
In late April, Stephens took to a court for the first time, sitting on an old coffee table and batting back balls; on May 16 she stood up and hit for the first time. “Coming back, being really excited to be back on court, I have a different mind-set: Stay super positive and compete really hard,” Stephens says. “That was a game-changer for me. I had nothing to lose.”
Pain-free after 11 months, she took two first-round losses at Wimbledon and Washington, D.C., but, in Toronto in August, then gutted out a trio of three-set matches and beat Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber before losing in the semis. Another deep run in Cincinnati raised more eyebrows. “I saw the flip: Sloane just kept battling,” Austin says. “That’s the difference—she’s battling now.”
She kept proving herself after arriving at Flushing Meadows ranked 83rd, with three-set wins over 11th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, 30th-seeded Julia Goerges, 16th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova and, especially, Venus in an epic semifinal. Serving at 4–5, 30-all, two points from elimination, Stephens finished off a 25-ball rally with a lasered backhand pass, then drilled a 97-mph service winner down the T to hold. Then came the haymakers—a stunningly perfect lob, a flash forehand off Venus’s netcord volley, a flurry of pinpoint groundstrokes. By the end Williams’s chest was heaving. One of the game’s stoniest wills had been ground into exhaustion, broken.
Keys was waiting for her own semifinal, watching on the gym TV, when Stephens raised her arms in victory. On the Friday before the Open they’d practiced together, their best session ever: “Like they’re trying to kill each other,” says Murray. “Informal, not many cameras, so we’re all talking crap. It was fun.” Now Keys teared up, and felt chills: They had both missed so much time, together.
“I was just so happy for her,” Keys said after the final.
She should be. Because more than any big, manufactured theme, the significance of this year’s Open was about a few pure and spontaneous moments, and one woman’s impressive growth. Perhaps the clearest takeaway from Saturday’s final is how good can result from injury, mistakes, fear and loss; Stephens would never have learned these truths about herself without them: “That I’m a real fighter, that I have a lot of grit,” she said. “Surprising.”
And without the win, nobody outside her circle would’ve known about Stephens’s loyalty or empathy or simple cool; comforting Keys on court called for all that. Then she invited Keys to the victory party. “She can buy me drinks,” Keys said. “All of the drinks.” Perfect. Such gestures, today, deserve a hearty toast. So this is where we raise a glass.