Early Saturday evening, Sloane Stephens' comeback peaked as high as a comeback possibly could.
Just over a month ago, the 24-year-old was ranked No. 957 in the world, still working back from foot surgery that kept her off the court for 11 months. On Saturday, Stephens became a US Open champion after beating good friend and fellow American Madison Keys, 6-3, 6-0. She will jump into the Top 20 on Monday.
"I should just retire now," Stephens joked after the match. "I told Maddie [Keys] I can't top this."
USOpen.org participated in a small roundtable with Stephens in the players' lounge Saturday night after the women's final. Here are select moments from the conversation, in which the first-time major champion discussed her future, how she got back to the top of the sport so quickly and where you can find her happiest.
USOpen.org: Success can come to some people positively and negatively. Are you going to think about how you’re going to handle this, what the future brings and what it means to you in terms of your attitude and how you live your life?
Stephens: I’m not going to change much. I’m going to try to keep everything like I have before. Obviously, there are going to be more responsibilities and a lot of other things I have to do, but I’m just going to try to keep everything the same.
USOpen.org: Do you expect it will be difficult?
Stephens: Yeah, of course. There is always going to be struggles. I’m adding a lot more to my life, and I’m sure there will 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; it’s a lot more on the person. So I’m actually looking forward to it. It should be challenging, but a super-fun next couple months, next couple of years.
USOpen.org: Did you learn anything from that experience of reaching the semifinals [at the 2013 Australian Open] that you used this time or plan to use?
Stephens: No. I think just a lot of life has happened and a lot of good things and bad things have happened. I mean, every time you do something big like that, it’s going to be different, so I’m sure, now that I’ve won a Grand Slam, things are going to be way different than making the semifinals of a Grand Slam like I did before. So I’m ready and prepared, and I think my team and everyone around is excited but happy to be in the situation.
USOpen.org: You were pretty young when you got to the Australian semifinal. Were there times after that and before now that you struggled with motivation, keeping the belief that it would happen for you?
Stephens: I’ve tried to stay positive, but obviously there have been times that have been difficult for everyone. It’s obviously tough being on the road and being away and all the things that come with being a professional tennis player. I’ve had some really great ups and some really like super-low downs. But I think, all in all, if you just keep it in perspective, I’ve now won the US Open, so I think it’s OK.
USOpen.org: You mentioned during the trophy ceremony that your mother took you to an academy when you were 11, and you were told that you wouldn’t be a great player. How much of a drive was it for you? What did you learn from that?
Stephens: Just that I wanted to play tennis, and I wanted to be a good player to the extent obviously I would never say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going to win a Grand Slam,' or 'I’m going to do this,' or I’m going to do that.’ I think it was just that I’m a little bit better than a Division II player and that I didn’t need a scholarship to go to play at a Division II school, and that if you just have people that believe in you, as such my mom, you can do incredible things.
USOpen.org: At what point this week did you believe that you could really win this tournament?
Stephens: I never really thought of it that way. I was doing an interview the other day, and the guy said to me, 'In 48 hours time, you can be a US Open champion.’ I was like, 'Really? That’s crazy!' I mean, obviously, my goal was to try to win the tournament and play my best here, but I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I’m totally going to win the US Open.’ I wasn’t thinking any of that. I was just going out and playing and competing, and that’s all I was thinking about.
USOpen.org: Your Instagram video in which you’re smiling as you took your first steps [after foot surgery] ... was there ever a thought in that moment in which you looked ahead to this moment?
Stephens: No. I mean, obviously, after having surgery you think, you’ve got to do really well in your rehab and you have to work really hard, and that was like the only thing I was focused on. And then, obviously, coming back at Wimbledon, I was just happy to be there. It was a long process, and I think just being able to get back on the court again was a big step and then being able to compete and winning matches and doing well, it’s all been quite the journey.