By Blair Henley
Three weeks ago, Sloane Stephens’ ranking sat at No. 926 in the world after a foot injury sidelined her for nearly a year. It was a far cry from the career-high rank of No. 11 that she earned soon after reaching the semifinals at the 2014 Australian Open.
“I’ll win a match eventually,” she said after falling to Simona Halep in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. “I’m totally not worried about that.”
True to her word, Stephens found her rhythm just days later, upsetting Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova during a semifinal run in Toronto. The 24-year-old Florida native backed that up with another impressive showing this week in Cincinnati, reaching her first Western & Southern Open semifinal with back-to-back wins on Friday.
“Obviously when you're playing good players, at this point in my comeback, there is no pressure on me,” she said after the match. “It's just, like, I'm going and having fun. I think most of it is that I'm so excited to be back on the court playing again that it gives me a little extra umph, I guess.”
Stephens shut down her 2016 season just after the Rio Olympic Games to deal with a lingering issue in her right foot. She planned to come back at the beginning of 2017 when an MRI revealed she had a stress fracture in her left foot. Surgery and months of rehab followed. It was during that time that she came in as a special correspondent for the Tennis Channel.
“I had such a good time being able to spend a month with Paul [Annacone], Tracy [Austin], Lindsay [Davenport] and Mary [Carillo],” she told Baseline.com. “...I was in a very sad place in my life. I had a big boot on and a huge walking thing, and it was just not fun. They made it a really good time for me. It was actually the highlight of my year so far.”
Now that she’s back on the WTA Tour winning tennis matches, she might have a few more highlights to choose from. Due to rain on Thursday night, Stephens’ third-round match against Ekaterina Makarova was pushed to Friday at 1:00. She extended her head-to-head against the former world No. 8 to 3-0 with a two-hour 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory, and was back out on the court at 5:30 to dismiss German Julia Goerges.
She only had one thing on her mind after the match.
“I’m just ready to go to Cracker Barrel,” she said. “All I can think about is food right now…country-fried steak, carrots, string beans, macaroni and cheese, biscuits with grape jelly, and a sweet tea. I love it so much.”
Stephens has always taken a low-key approach to her tennis. Even as a top-15 player, she seemed remarkably unconcerned with wins and losses – and she doesn’t plan on changing a thing as she continues her comeback.
“I mean, it's worked so far,” she said with a smile.
As a reward for her efforts on Friday, Stephens will face Halep for the second time in the past three weeks in Saturday’s Western & Southern Open semifinals. She will be looking to break a three-match losing streak against the world No. 2. Win or lose, there is one thing Stephens can count on: plenty of fan support.
“Even in D.C. for all the doubles matches, literally, you couldn't get a seat at the doubles matches,” she said. “It was standing room only, people hanging off the balcony. I'd say the last three tournaments I played, the support has been by far the best I have ever had when I was playing before.”
Why does she think that is?
“I guess maybe [the fans] just really missed me.”