US Open: Been there, done that, Sloane Stephens is looking the real deal once again

The 25 year-old won't be phased as she seeks to secure second consecutive US Open title......


Did you know that Sloane Stephens is actually a two-time US Open champion?

This time eight years ago, a 17-year-old Stephens partnered with Timea Babos to win the junior doubles title at Flushing Meadows. It was the third doubles major for the pair after success that season at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

The American also made the last four of the singles in New York before losing in three sets to Daria Gavrilova. It was a fine run for Stephens and her junior draw that year bears a striking resemblance to the 2018 version.

After defeating Silvia Njiric and Ran Tian in the opening rounds, Stephens battled Elina Svitolina, then aged just 15. The Ukrainian was dispatched in straight sets 6-4 6-0.

Next up for Stephens that week: Karolina Pliskova.

The 18-year-old Czech was a much tougher proposition and grabbed the first set before the Floridian recovered in three. Stephens’s singles journey was ended by Gavrilova who outlasted her 7-5 1-6 7-6. It would be her final event as a junior.

Eight years on from that week, three of those players sit at the top table of the professional game: Stephens is world no.3 and defending US Open champion, Svitolina is world no.7 while Pliskova lies at eight.

Also eight years on from that week, there is the real prospect of them meeting once again to decide the top half of the 2018 US Open women’s draw.

Stephens’s reward for defeating Victoria Azarenka on Friday evening is a fourth round bout with Elise Mertens. The Belgian is an excellent player with three titles to her name already this season. Mertens also beat the American a couple of weeks ago in Cincinnati so Stephens won’t be complacent.

Should the 25-year-old prevail over Mertens, she will face either Anastasija Sevastova or her old foe Svitolina. The Ukrainian has so far struggled to replicate her tremendous tour form in the grand slams and given it’s the last hurrah of 2018, she will be especially motivated to progress.

The third member of that junior group, Karolina Pliskova, has been paired with the uber talented Ashleigh Barty in the round of 16 and may struggle to overcome the rising Aussie.

If the big serving Czech can manage her way to the last eight, it’s most likely that Serena Williams will be waiting for her. With so many doubts and so few wins upon entering Flushing Meadows, the 20-time major winner made quite a statement on Friday evening.

In their 30th meeting as professionals, Serena dismantled her sister Venus 6-1 6-2 in the most lopsided clash of their storied rivalry. “This was my best match since I returned,” said Williams afterwards. That sounds ominous for the rest of the field as she focuses on improving her level.

Stephens will not be overly concerned though.

In 2013, Williams was shocked in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open by an emerging American talent. Sloane announced her shot making and athleticism to the world with a 3-6 7-5 6-4 comeback victory.

Williams won the next four encounters but they haven’t met for three years. Stephens has clearly improved as a player in the interim but we still don’t know where Serena’s game truly is.

After a surprising run to the final of Wimbledon so soon in her comeback, the 36-year-old couldn’t find her best tennis against a ruthless Angelique Kerber.

There will be a similar challenge ahead for Williams this coming fortnight, possibly against Stephens, and it will be interesting to see if she can find the devastating first serves, punishing ground strokes and ferocious intensity we’re so used to.

While the bottom half of the draw has untold combinations of semi-finalists that I won’t even attempt to predict, it looks like Serena or Sloane will emerge from the top and seal a place in next week’s final.

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