Sloane Stephens was looking for her second Grand Slam in a row at the U.S. Open last year. In the final against Roberta Vinci, the crowd at the Arthur Ashe Stadium roared for the underdog as she scored two of the best three points of the match to send her to a hard-fought three-setter with the champion. Afterward, Stephens sat courtside soaking in the applause but also acutely aware that the bad blood between herself and Vinci was taking its toll.
“I didn’t sleep,” said Stephens, who had the defending champion in her bracket at Flushing Meadows. “I was crying, even though I wasn’t crying. It was, like, the worst.”
The women’s tournament at the U.S. Open last year served as a turning point for the American tennis, a psychologically draining spotlight that highlighted a previously wounded player and an angry, underperforming one. It was something that had been building for a while. The press corps at Flushing Meadows had been focused on Stephens and her on-court life for years. Vinci had a special aura that came from an entertaining personality and an iron will.
On Sunday, Stephens will be back on the U.S. Open’s biggest stage for a second time. She will be one of the favorites to win the singles tournament and to make history as the first woman from the United States to win the U.S. Open since Venus Williams in 2000. She has grown, the team around her has grown and she is older and more confident.
“I’m going out there trying to be the best player I can be,” she said. “If I’m able to do that, good things will happen for me.”
Stephens and the rest of the women’s singles draw have emerged from an off year to compete for a grand slam title in 2017. She has gone 16-4 in the first half of the season after starting last year 6-13. Her best is still to come, the 24-year-old says.
The tournament’s early-round matches will not be as successful. A qualifier, Germany’s Annika Beck, was the first into the third round. Even the top seeds – she will meet Madison Keys – have been troubled. The top-ranked woman is Garbine Muguruza, a first-time Grand Slam finalist a year ago who had knee surgery in February. The No. 2 seed, Simona Halep, is a semifinalist at two of the first three majors and won the Dubai tournament, but she has not won a set in her opening round in five matches this year.
Her run in Dubai ended with the loss to Stephens in the semifinals. Not even a notable rematch – they met at the Australian Open, then again on the clay of Rome last month – could carry Halep past Stephens. Stephens, now 21-3, is a formidable opponent. Stephens beat the two-time French Open champion in Melbourne. She beat Angelique Kerber in the 2016 French Open final and world No. 1, Serena Williams, en route to an NCAA championship at Florida State in 2009.
“I feel like the main thing is having a good end, getting close to the end,” Stephens said. “Having two more rounds would be nice. It’s that next step. And I’m excited to get there.”
The final round of the U.S. Open is set for Aug. 27-30. The seedings were released Saturday morning. Of the four U.S. Open women’s singles champions in the last six years, Stephens is the only one not seeded ahead of her. Meanwhile, the men’s singles final will be contested at the same site, as Novak Djokovic is unseeded, and still has the top-ranked player, Andy Murray, in his quarter.