Sloane Stephens was trying to get ready. Busy choosing an outfit to wear for her day-after-U.S-Open-championship photo shoot in New York last September, Stephens barely heard the knock at her hotel room door.
Assuming the intruder was room service, Stephens cheerily called out, “Come iiiin.” When she realized, instead, that her visitor was the star point guard for the Houston Rockets, Stephens, a newly-minted Grand Slam champion, simply blurted out, “You’re Chris Paul.”
It turned out that Paul’s mother, Robin Jones, had followed Stephens’s unlikely run to the title and become a Stephens fan. Paul, a nine-time N.B.A. All-Star, happened to be staying in the same hotel as Stephens and wanted to meet her. During their visit, he even got his mother on his phone so she could FaceTime with Stephens.
“That was super awesome,” Stephens recalled Thursday afternoon, just after she reached the Miami Open final. “I mean, I love him, and I got to meet his mom. It was so cute.”
Celebrity encounters like that are the kind of perk that Stephens still marvels over when she thinks back to her Open win. But they also helped her get through a rough post-Open patch — from last fall through the Australian Open in January — when she lost eight straight matches.
It is easy to smile about the good times again, now that Stephens, who defeated the former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka on Thursday to reach the Miami final, is having her best tournament in months. But it hasn’t always been this much fun. During her victory drought, Stephens lost four matches on a WTA tour-mandated Asian swing and then dropped both of her singles matches while representing the United States in the Fed Cup final in Belarus. One of those matches, an 8-6 third-set defeat to Aliaksandra Sasnovich, left her in tears.
“My heart was there and I really wanted to play because I was super excited about playing again,” said Stephens, who had missed the first half of 2017 after surgery on her left foot. “But physically I was not anywhere near where I wanted to be, and that’s just what you get when you’re not 100 percent healthy. I wanted to be there mentally but my body was like, ‘No, girl, have a seat.’
“That just turned into people saying how I’m such a flop and I’m never going to be the same,” added Stephens, who was ranked No. 83 when she won the Open, becoming only the fifth unseeded champion in tournament history. “It was crazy, but people just don’t know what’s going on. I mean, they have no idea.”
Stephens will face last year’s French Open champion, sixth-seeded Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, in the final on Saturday, the last time the tournament will be contested on Key Biscayne, near Stephens’s Fort Lauderdale home, before it moves north next year to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.
The 20-year-old Ostapenko, now at career-high No. 5 ranking, was No. 64 entering last year’s Miami Open. That was before she upset Romania’s Simona Halep in Paris to become the lowest-ranked player (at No. 47) and first unseeded woman to win at Roland Garros.
Ostapenko and Stephens have never played a tour match against each other, and both are seeking their first title this season. Ostapenko won a tournament, in Seoul, South Korea, last fall. That, and the French Open, are her only two career titles. Stephens has won five, including in Auckland, Charleston and Acapulco in 2016.
But both are defending majors, and major ranking points, this summer, so they realize the importance of adding the Miami Open to their resumes. And both are keenly aware that winning one major does not make a career, even if it still feels special.
The U.S. Open trophy that Stephens was awarded last September, for example, now holds a coveted place in the middle of the dining table in her grandparents’ home in Fresno, Calif. Why, Stephens was asked, is her most treasured prize not in her own home?
“Everything that is special or important to me I keep at my grandparents’ house,” she said, a big, toothy smile emerging from beneath her baseball cap. “That’s because they appreciate it as much as I do.”