Tennis

Sloane Stephens rallies to secure place in Miami Open’s women’s final Saturday

Sloane Stepens waves to the crowd after her victory against Victoria Azarenka during the Miami Open tennis tournament in Key Biscayne on Thursday, March 29, 2018.
Sloane Stepens waves to the crowd after her victory against Victoria Azarenka during the Miami Open tennis tournament in Key Biscayne on Thursday, March 29, 2018. dvarela@miamiherald.com

Sloane Stephens has never lost a final match — she has played in five in her career — and she’s hoping that perfect record will continue when she plays for her first Miami Open title Saturday.

Stephens, who was born in Plantation and lives in Fort Lauderdale, earned her final berth at this hometown tournament courtesy of a hard-fought 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 semifinal victory against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus on Thursday.

Stephens trailed Azarenka, a three-time past Miami Open champion, 6-3, 2-0 when she kicked her game up another notch to win the next 10 games played. Azarenka, playing only her second tournament since 2017 Wimbledon, started to visibly fatigue once Stephens mounted her comeback.

“I grew up in South Florida so for any of my friends and family, it’s always amazing to get to play here because they get to come and see me,” said Stephens, who shrieked in delight after posting the victory. “I knew that I was going to have to fight.

“Obviously to get to a semifinal you’re doing something right, you’re playing good tennis. So I knew if I just fought, stayed in it, and kept it close I would have my opportunities.”

The 25-year-old Stephens, who joins the elite top-10 for the first time in her career this coming Monday, captured the most notable of her five trophies when she shockingly won the U.S. Open with a 6-3, 6-0 victory over fellow American Madison Keys last September.

The U.S. Open journey was a true Cinderella scenario for the then 83rd-ranked Stephens as she became the fifth unseeded women in the Open Era to win a Grand Slam title. Stephens had missed out on 11-months of playing from the 2016 Olympics to 2017 Wimbledon because of a foot injury that eventually required surgery.

In a six-week period last summer, Stephens went from a ranking that dropped to No. 957 to winning that first Grand Slam title in New York. The achievement earned her bragging rights as the 2017 WTA Comeback Player of the Year.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t clear sailing for Stephens following the U.S. Open victory. She lost all six of her remaining 2017 matches, and then the first two she played in 2018, only coming out of the slump when she reached the Acapulco quarterfinals earlier this month.

“I just needed some time to get myself together and get myself in a good place,” said Stephens, when asked about her downturn following the U.S. Open. “At the end of last season, my heart was there, but my body, physically, was not. I think that was the most important thing, to get myself back into the best shape I could be in.

“I think now, I’ve taken the time to put myself together and I’m having some good results.”

The Miami Open was the second consecutive tournament that Stephens sent the 186th-ranked Azarenka packing, turning the Belarusian aside 6-1, 7-5 in the second-round at Indian Wells. That marked Stephens’ first win in four career matches played against Azarenka with the other three all taking place at the Australian Open.

The Miami Open is only Azarenka’s fourth tournament played since she gave birth to her son, Leo, in December 2016. She returned to the game for two tournaments last summer, including a round-of-16 showing at Wimbledon, but then became embroiled in a custody battle with the father of her son, which prevented her from traveling away from her Los Angeles home.

Azarenka, who is projected to return to the top 100 after this Miami Open, isn’t sure when she’ll be able to play next as the custody situation isn’t formally resolved. She does, however, realize she needs to play more regularly if her career is to flourish.

“I honestly didn’t feel good at all the whole match,” Azarenka said. “I felt like I was a little bit too slow. It’s just I was fresher in the first set and getting to the ball at the right time.

“I need to be more tournament fit, more match fit, and I need to continue to play.”

Stephens’ shot to score a sixth career title will see her face either sixth-seeded Jelena Ostapenko, the reigning French Open champion, or 93rd-ranked American qualifying sensation Danielle Collins, who hails from across the state in St. Pete.

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