NEW YORK — About an hour after Sloane Stephens announced her arrival by winning the U.S. Open, her coach, Kamau Murray, was standing in the hallway outside the women’s locker room in Arthur Ashe Stadium as a colleague walked past.
It was Patrick Mouratoglou, coach of Serena Williams. The two men embraced, and Murray said aloud to folks nearby, “Can somebody get a picture of me and him? He’s a legend. I’m not.”
For now, that would also describe the gulf in accomplishments between Williams, owner of 23 major titles, and Stephens, owner of one. Still, the events of Saturday night — the way an unseeded Stephens dominated Madison Keys 6-3, 6-0 in the final to cap quite a comeback from foot surgery, then “won” her news conference, too, with abundant charm, wit and exuberance — showed that Stephens is ready for the spotlight. And at just the right moment.
The past two weeks, and the past several months, should delight tennis fans with thoughts of 2018, when Williams is expected to return to action after having a baby and join quite a cast. In addition to Williams’ older sister Venus, rejuvenated at age 37, there is now a young group of emerging Americans — Stephens, 24, Keys, 22, and Flushing Meadows semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe, 25 — along with Garbine Muguruza, 23, the Wimbledon champion who will debut at No. 1 in the rankings on Monday, and Jelena Ostapenko, 20, the French Open champ.
“I see (Stephens) as a dangerous player. … And she has, of course, a lot of things in her game that brought her to become a Grand Slam winner,” Mouratoglou said. “But whoever is dangerous, Serena is still Serena. My job is to make her the best she can. And when she’s the best she can — she’s not every day, all her life, but she is quite often — then you have to go get her.”
The task for Stephens now will be to follow up her breakthrough.
“There’s always going to be struggles. I’m adding a lot more to my life. And I’m sure there’ll be some ups and downs and some tough times, because it’s never easy when something like this happens. Not saying it’s a bad thing; just a lot more on a person,” Stephens said. “So I’m actually looking forward to it. Should be a challenging, but super-fun, next couple of months, next couple of years.”
At 19, she beat Serena Williams to reach the 2013 Australian Open semifinals, but hadn’t put together a run quite like this, winning 15 of her past 17 matches and getting to a Grand Slam final for the first time. Stephens was out of action from August 2016 because of what turned out to be a stress fracture in her left foot , had surgery in January once it was properly diagnosed, and returned to the tour at Wimbledon in July.
Her ranking was outside the top 900 a month ago but will be No. 17 as of Monday. She has a style predicated on defense, using her speed to track down opponents’ shots that against many others would be point-ending winners, and picks her spots to attack judiciously.
Asked whether she might want to become more aggressive in matches, Stephens replied, deadpan: “I think my game is OK.”
She laughed a bit and continued: “I think that I don’t need to change anything, because if I can play the way I’m playing and win a Grand Slam, I don’t think there needs to be any discussion about it.”
When a reporter mentioned to Stephens she made only six unforced errors in the final, 24 fewer than Keys. Stephens asked, incredulously: “I made six unforced errors in the whole match?”
Told that was, indeed, correct, she smacked the table with her left palm and exclaimed: “Shut the front door! I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before. Oh, my God. That’s a stat!”
Another example of her vivacious personality: When a reporter wondered whether a first major championship gave Stephens a hunger to get another, this was the answer: “Of course, girl. Did you see that check that lady handed me?! Like, yes. Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will .”
As for her place in the game, Stephens said: “I don’t know if I have ‘arrived’ or ‘already arrived,’ ‘been arrived.’ I don’t know, but I do know I’m a U.S. Open champion. So whatever that means to you.”
Oh, yes, she’s arrived.
Stephens, Keys and Vandeweghe could make the United States a Grand Slam factor for many years to come, no matter how long the Williams sisters keep winning big matches. Add in some other new faces, and women’s tennis could be more exciting than ever. Bring on the Australian Open.
More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis