Tennis

Stephens reaches Miami Open quarters, reveals favorite pizza

Sloane Stephens returns a ball hit by Garbine Muguruza at the Miami Open on Key Biscayne, Florida, March 26, 2018.
Sloane Stephens returns a ball hit by Garbine Muguruza at the Miami Open on Key Biscayne, Florida, March 26, 2018. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Like most of the players in the Miami Open, Sloane Stephens has fond memories of Crandon Park Tennis Center, dating back to when she was 12 years old and commuting from Broward County to practice at the Key Biscayne facility when it was an official U.S. Tennis Association training site.

Of all the things she will miss when the tournament moves to Hard Rock Stadium next year, Stephens said the one she will miss most is Sir Pizza.

“That’s my favorite place to go,” Stephens said, smiling, after advancing to the quarterfinals with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over No. 3 seed Garbine Muguruza on Monday. “I have been going there since I was, like, 12, since the USTA was here. The same people work there. It’s such a gem, the best pizza. I’m really going to miss it, because there will be no reason to come down to Key Biscayne anymore, so I have to make a special trip.”

Stephens, the No. 13 seed in the Miami Open, will face former No. 1 Angelique Kerber in the next round. Kerber survived a tight match against Chinese qualifier Yafan Wang 6-7 (1-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-3.

Venus Williams, who is 37 and has battled auto-immune disorders, battled nearly three hours for the second day in a row. She dropped the first set to defending champion Johanna Konta of Great Britain, but regrouped and won 5-7, 6-1, 6-2. Konta had a lower-back issue and called a trainer after the second set, and Williams seemed to get stronger as the match wore on.

Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina also advanced.

In a high-energy night match on Court 1, Miami’s Monica Puig, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist, lost to University of Virginia two-time NCAA champion Danielle Collins 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. Puig had treatment on her shoulder and arm after the second set. Collins, ranked 93rd, will play Williams in the quarterfinal.

“I love seeing Americans do well, and she seems like a super-nice person, so I’d like to face another American,” Williams said of Collins, a native of St. Petersburg, Florida.

On the men’s side, Nick Kyrgios won in straight sets over Fabio Fognini, Americans Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson were eliminated, and qualifier Thanasi Kokkinakis, who beat Roger Federer in the previous round, lost in three sets to Fernando Verdasco. Alexander Zverev beat David Ferrer 2-6, 6-2, 6-4 in the night match.

Stephens was feeling especially grateful to reach the quarterfinals considering where she was last March. She was forced to skip last year’s tournament following surgery on her left foot, didn’t play for 11 months and saw her ranking plummet to No. 967.

Then, last August, six weeks after returning to the tour, the Plantation native had a fairytale U.S. Open run, becoming the fifth unseeded woman to win a Grand Slam title.

She beat Dominika Cibulkova, Venus Williams and Madison Keys at the U.S. Open and received a check for $3.7 million. She was named 2017 WTA Comeback Player of the Year. Her new-found success landed her interviews on “Good Morning America” and the “Jimmy Kimmel Show.” And she got a new Nike contract.

But she went into a post-Open slump, losing the next seven matches of 2017, including three to players ranked below No. 75. She also lost in the first round of the 2018 Australian Open.

Looking back on it, Stephens said she was “living life to the fullest” and trying to push herself too much after an unexpected maiden Grand Slam title.

“I didn’t play tennis for 11 months, and then I decided to go ahead and win the U.S. Open not in the best shape, not in the greatest form, and I really wanted to play the end of the season and probably wasn’t the right decision,” she said.

“I made some decisions based on where my heart was, not where my body was physically. I think that was kind of like a domino effect. After Australia I just took the time to really get myself together. When you put in the work, you are able to get some results.”

She reached the third round at Indian Wells, California, by beating former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka. Stephens cruised through her opening match in Miami over wild-card Ajia Tomljanovic, but was tested by Monica Niculescu in the third round, losing the first set in a tiebreaker, rallying to win the second set and then going up 4-0 in the third before her opponent retired.

Stephens said that match prepared her for Muguruza.

“It’s matches like the one before when I played Niculescu where you’ve got to really battle and fight … those matches give you confidence to beat a player like this,” she said. “I thought I did an excellent job the of just staying in there. I lost the first set, and I could have easily got down on myself and kind of just give it away, but I was pleased that I was able to fight.”

As a South Florida native, Stephens feels at home on Key Biscayne. She has friends and family in the stands — as well as an unknown diehard fan who enthusiastically offers her encouragement from the stands. She singled him out during her postmatch speech.

“I have no idea who that is, just a fan,” she said. “It’s entertaining. Obviously, he knows tennis. He’s shouting all the right things. It’s helpful, and it’s always nice to have someone backing you like that.”

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