Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon recaps Sloane Stephens’s win at the 2018 Miami Open.
Sloane Stephens only needed to come home to accomplish what she had never done.
The 25-year-old, who’s seemingly been on the verge of a major breakthrough since her first Top 100 season all the way back in 2011, is now a Top 10 player in the world after beating Jelena Ostapenko 7-6(5) and 6-1 in the Miami Open final. She described the feeling as one of relief. “Finally. Oh, my God,” she said. “I’m so tired of them being, like, career-high ranking, No.11. Like, finally I can move in there.”
Stephens pushed her record to 9-4 this year after this perfect run in Key Biscayne.
2018 MIAMI OPEN CHAMPION ? pic.twitter.com/yCqEBNm0oN
— Sloane Stephens (@SloaneStephens) March 31, 2018
In the process, she became the last woman to win on the same courts she had grown up playing on in Miami. This wasn’t lost on her. “I’m definitely happy that I could be the last person to win here. I have had some amazing experiences here, and I’ll definitely miss it,” she said. “I just feel fortunate that I was able to do that here in South Florida with all my friends and family watching.”
Doing that was beating four Grand Slam champions in a row on her way to winning the first Premier Mandatory title of her career and pushing her career record in finals to a stellar 6-0, only a few months after winning a first Grand Slam title at the 2017 US Open.
— WTA (@WTA) March 31, 2018
It’s been a sensational few months for Stephens, at least that’s what the above paragraph would have you believe. Two huge titles, and about half of all her career earnings just there, that’s about as good as it gets for a player like Stephens.
But of course a closer look at Stephens’s results from September to March paints a different picture. After beating Madison Keys in the final at Flushing Meadows, the player simply couldn’t win again: after the greatest triumph of her career, Stephens lost the next eight matches she played if we include two at the Fed Cup.
If this entry in the Top 10 feels entirely overdue, it’s because she had already once come so close of making it. After a 2013 season in which she made the semifinals at the Australian Open, the fourth round in Roland Garros and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, she was ranked No. 11 and finished that year at No. 12. In other words, she was ready to capitalize on all the potential she had thus far showcased. It seems like her well-rounded playing style, based on a control aggression and a great capacity to cover the court, would finally propel her to the limelight of the sport.
Sloane Stephens was next, or so we thought.
Instead, while she did start the following season playing good tennis all the way through the French Open, her level eventually dipped and Stephens spent the better part of the rest of the year battling herself and inconsistent results all the way to No. 37 on the WTA rankings.
In all likelihood, a first foray into tennis royalty could have come as soon as the 2016 season, where Stephens snagged three WTA titles but had to withdraw from the US Open because of a stress fracture on her right foot. She was only getting started, and that’s when she had to stop.
By then in early 2017, she was so far from the Top 10 that she was actually a broadcaster for Tennis Channel for a while, notably for this same event that she won over the past weekend in Miami.
Don’t ever believe anyone who tells you things never change. Stephens is proof of that. And she still might be next.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG