Call it the best comeback that tennis has ever witnessed. Sloane Stephens, unable to walk in April, yet in September lifted up her first Major trophy. We had many impressive comebacks in professional tennis by other players, but Stephens’ run was one of a kind. From being ranked 934th in July, the American has since returned to the top-20 and has played the best tennis of her career.
Stephens’ win-loss record stands at a disappointing 15-10 despite winning her first Major and reentering the top-15 of the rankings. Impressively enough, all her wins came against top-50 players and she amassed a 15-4 record at the US Open Series alone. The average ranking of the opponents she had beaten stands at an incredible 27.1, while she fell to lower-ranked players on six different and consecutive occasions, which all occurred during the Asian Swing.
Stephens earned the first win of her comeback at the Rogers Cup, where she relied on a Protected Ranking to enter the main draw. After suffering from two consecutive first-round losses, she claimed a win over Yulia Putintseva in a tricky opening round encounter. The American then ousted 14th seed Petra Kvitova in three tough sets before thrashing then-world number three Angelique Kerber 6-2, 6-2 in just under an hour. Saving a match point to defeat Lucie Safarova, Stephens’ incredible run came to an end in the hands of Caroline Wozniacki, falling 2-6, 3-6 in a relatively one-sided match.
Receiving a wildcard into the Western and Southern Open, her home tournament, she once again faced off against Safarova and this time she triumphed over the Czech yet again, prevailing in straight sets. She faced yet another Czech, defeating Kvitova for the second time in as many weeks as well. Excellent wins over the in-form Ekaterina Makarova and Julia Goerges followed before Stephens’ run once again stopped in the semifinals with soon-to-be world number one Simona Halep totally dominating their 6-2, 6-1 encounter.
Entering the US Open as the world number 83 and relying on another Protected Ranking, Stephens received an extremely tough draw as she was drawn against former finalist Roberta Vinci in the opening round. Nonetheless, she managed to get past the Italian without facing many problems. The American followed it up with her second top-10 win of the year over the struggling Dominika Cibulkova in a tight three-set match before defeating Ashleigh Barty and Julia Goerges, both in straight sets.
Her top-notch counterpunching tennis was a beauty to watch, and she faced off against the all-rounded Anastasija Sevastova in the quarterfinals. There, she had to dig deep and prevail in a final-set tiebreak, before overcoming a mid-match wobble to outlast the legendary Venus Williams 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 in a late-night thriller to reach her first-ever Grand Slam final, where she had to go up against compatriot and good friend Madison Keys. Her Cinderella run was completed in the best way possible, triumphing 6-3, 6-0 in her maiden Grand Slam final having defeated seven consecutive top-50 players along the way.
Interestingly, Stephens has either gone on to reach the semifinals or lost in the opening round in all her events. Her comeback to professional tennis started off slowly, having lost her first match in 11 months to compatriot Alison Riske in the first round of the Wimbledon Championships. Falling to the 957th position in the rankings, Stephens endured through another early exit at the Citi Open, falling to then-world number two Simona Halep in straight sets.
Incredible performances at Toronto, Cincinnati and New York followed, but Stephens faced many problems after claiming her first Major title. Struggling with a foot injury, the American shockingly fell to Wang Qiang in the first round of the Wuhan Open, her first match as a Grand Slam champion. Her willpower and fight seem to have all vanished after the US Open Swing, looking out-of-sorts against Christina McHale in a 3-6, 0-6 loss in Beijing.
Hindered by her lingering foot injury, Stephens lost to Anastasija Sevastova in her first Round Robin match at the WTA Elite Trophy before retiring at 0-5 down against Barbora Strycova to end off the regular season. Nonetheless, despite her struggles, the American was still nominated to represent her country at the Fed Cup final. However, she still could not find her groove as she was outclassed by an in-form Aryna Sabalenka before falling to an inspired Aliaksandra Sasnovich despite leading 5-2 in the deciding set. Nevertheless, her country still managed to claim a 3-2 win eventually.
Season Grade: A-
Although Stephens managed to claim the Comeback Player of the Year award and also win her first Grand Slam, the American has largely struggled during the Asian Swing and ended the year on an unbelievable six-match losing streak with her last win coming over Madison Keys in the final of the US Open. Nonetheless, her comeback had been incredible and earlier on, no one would have placed a bet on Stephens to achieve what she had done this year.