American Sloane Stephens reaches her first U.S. Open semifinal

NEW YORK — When life throws someone a curveball the way they respond says a great deal about a person.

For Sloane Stephens, nearly a year off the court with a left foot stress fracture that required surgery, has been a game-changer that’s enabled her to persevere. The 24-year-old’s run to the semifinals at this U.S. Open is particularly poignant as she was out of action from the Rio Olympics last summer until Wimbledon in July.

“I think just my head is a little clearer, if that makes any sense,” said Stephens, of her return to the game. “Before, obviously, I was playing well. I had won a couple tournaments and was playing well, obviously. But being injured gave me a whole new perspective on tennis, on life, and just in general.

“I think now, as I said before, I play tennis for a living, and I enjoy it and I have a great time,” she added. “I don’t think there is anything else I’d rather be doing.”

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Tuesday she became the first woman into the U.S. Open semifinals by securing a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (4) quarterfinal marathon against 16th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia.

“Oh man, I’m getting teary-eyed,” said the 83rd-ranked Stephens on court, after reaching the U.S. Open final four for the first time in her career. “This is just incredible. When I started my comeback at Wimbledon I couldn’t dream of this happening. Making the semifinals at my home slam is almost unbelievable, indescribably.”

The injury created an opportunity for Stephens to experience real life and while it was welcome, especially the ability to spend time with her California-based grandparents after her grandmother suffered a stroke in the spring of 2016, it also emphasized that tennis is her life.

“It was just obviously not playing tennis for basically 11 months. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t do all the things that I wanted to do,” she said. “But I did get to hang out with my family and see my little cousin’s soccer games and go to weddings and baby showers and stuff. All the things that I thought before I was missing out on, I really wasn’t.

“Playing tennis is an amazing thing and I’m lucky that I’m able to play a sport for a living. I really love playing tennis. I think it was just kind of eye opening. When I wasn’t playing of course I loved my time off, but when I got back to playing tennis, it was, like, this is where I want to be. This is what I love doing.”

This is Stephens’ second career Grand Slam semifinal. As a 19-year-old, she surprisingly reached the same round at the 2013 Australian Open where she lost to eventual champion Victoria Azarenka.

Her memory four years after that Australian Open seems fuzzy at best. But the difficulty she experienced following that amazing outcome, trying to live up to expectations, clearly resonates as tough to have gotten through.

“To be honest, I don’t really remember what I felt like after the first one,” she said, smiling. “But it was, I’d say, the first one was quite overwhelming. But this one feels good. I think I have a better perspective and just looking at the game totally different. Just happy with where I’m at. Just looking to build on it.”

Ahead of back-to-back semifinal showings at Toronto and Cincinnati this summer, Stephens was ranked 934th in the world because she was out of action for so long. She’s now looking at a return to the top 50 with at least a semifinal result at the Open.

In the first set, it looked as if Sevastova might be down for the count when she received treatment for an right upper thigh problem. Nevertheless, the Latvian persevered to dog Stephens through to a third-set tiebreaker.

Even the deciding tiebreaker had drama as Stephens went ahead 3-1, but dropped the mini-break. Leading 5-3, she dropped her advantage again on a net cord shot the very next point, but won the final two points to close out the 2-hour, 28-minute match.