In 2008, at the age of 15, Sloane Stephens was given her first wild card into a WTA event. That event happened to be the formerly known Sony Ericsson Open, which is now simply the Miami Open. Ten years later Stephens has another reason to celebrate. After defeating Ajla Tomljanovic, Monica Niculescu, and former number ones and two-time major champions Garbiñe Murgurza and Angelique Kerber, Stephens has officially confirmed a new career high, finally tracking down an elusive spot in the top 10 of the WTA rankings.
Sloane Stephens has been touted as one of America’s next great tennis talents for years. With effortless power off both wings, speed that makes court coverage a breeze, a bubbly personality, and a serve that can reach 120 mph, Stephens’ skill set could easily be described as a template for the modern WTA playing style. After a junior career in which she reached World No. 5, she ended 2011 as the youngest player in the top 100. One could say her true breakthrough on the professional tour came during the 2013 season, when her highlights included reaching her first major semifinal at the 2013 Australian Open after beating Serena Williams in the quarterfinals; reaching the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, losing to eventual surprise champion Marion Bartoli; and finishing the year ranked No. 11 and as the only woman ranked within the top 30 under the age of 22.
Yet Stephens would be the first to admit that her newfound notoriety was a tough adjustment. Five years ago, Stephens was one match away from breaking into the top 10 until it seemed that the expectations became a burden. It was easy for Stephens to find motivation at the majors, but she often struggled to defeat top-40 or lower-ranked opponents when the spotlight wasn’t as large. At her lowest point she finished the year ranked 36. Many criticized her play as lackadaisical and wondered if she cared enough to compete during this time period.
Knowing these struggles it was exciting to hear her tell Tennis With An Accent in Miami that “winning against a player like Niculescu, where you have to really battle and fight, who won’t just play you up and down, and having to do a lot of work to stay in the point gives me more confidence to play players like that (Mugurza and Kerber).” Fighting through three-set battles was a strength during her unexpected run to the U.S. Open title this past September. Stephens could use that confidence again after recently stopping a string of eight straight losses since she won her biggest career title.
Stephens has definitely learned to appreciate the grueling lifestyle and expectations that come with being higher ranked. She recently endured a foot injury that kept her from walking, let alone playing tennis, for almost a year. For many, Stephens breaking into the top 10 seems like a long-overdue achievement, but for 16 years the Williams Sisters were the last American women to earn a top-10 ranking. Since 2016, Americans have seen the young talents — Madison Keys, CoCo Vandeweghe, and now Sloane Stephens — join them in that achievement. Stephens told Tennis With An Accent, “Finally! I’m so tired of them saying ‘career-high ranking number 11.’ It’s not easy. Getting to number 11 was hard, so getting into the top 10 is pretty special.”
With no points to defend until August due to her injury absence, the sky is truly the limit for Sloane Stephens.
Image taken from zimbio.com