U.S. Open finalist Sloane Stephens of Coral Springs says support from her soccer player boyfriend, U.S. national team star Jozy Altidore, is a key reason for her remarkable rise to prominence this summer.
Stephens, the daughter of the late-NFL star John Stephens and All-American swimmer Sybil Smith, is in the first Grand Slam final of her career after an 11-month layoff and surgery on her left foot in late-January. When she returned to the WTA Tour at Wimbledon in July, she had plummeted to No. 934 in the world rankings. Since then, she has won 14 of 16 matches, reached back-to-back semifinals in Toronto and Cincinnati, and now is in an All-American U.S. Open final against close friend Madison Keys of Boca Raton.
With Thursday night’s 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 win over her idol, Venus Williams, Stephens moves up to No. 21, and if she wins the title, she’ll rise to No. 15.
She credited Altidore, who plays for Toronto FC, with helping her get through the long road to recovery.
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“I don’t think there’s been a more positive person in my corner that I’ve had,” Stephens said of Altidore in a New York Times story. “When I was on the peg leg (cast), I was with him, and I would always make fun of myself and he’d make fun of me. But he kept it really light for me, so I was never too sad.”
Stephens, 24, says she has known Altidore, 27, since she was in fifth grade. He grew up in Boca Raton. It is unknown how long they’ve been dating, but Altidore was in Stephens’ player box during a tournament in Toronto last month. Altidore served a suspension and missed Tuesday’s 1-1 tie at Honduras in a critical World Cup qualifying match after getting two yellow cards in a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica.
All four of the U.S. Open semifinalists were American for the first time in 36 years. Keys beat CoCo Vandeweghe 6-1, 6-2 in the other semi.
“I just don’t want anyone to ever ask me about the state of American tennis ever again,” Stephens told reporters. “The proof is in the pudding. So, we don’t ever need to discuss the state of American tennis. We’re doing great.”
She is looking forward to playing Keys, who is also in her first Grand Slam final.
“I don’t think there’s any other word to describe it than amazing for me and Maddie,’’ said Stephens. “Obviously, Venus, we’re following in her footsteps. She’s been here, represented the game so well as an African-American woman. Maddie and I are here to join her and represent as well as Venus has in the past and honored to be here.”
Keys, 22, had left-wrist surgery early this year, then had another operation in June. But, like Stephens, she is on a roll with 11 wins in 12 matches.
“It feels absolutely amazing,” Keys said. “These are the moments growing up that you dream about. To be sitting here as a US Open finalist is amazing. It was one of those days where I came out and I was in a zone and I forced myself to stay there.
“Who would’ve thought in Australia, Sloane and I would be the finalists of the U.S. Open, both having just had surgery and not playing. … She’s a close friend of mine. To be able to play each other in our first finals is a really special moment.”