Sloane Stephens wins U.S. Open for first Grand Slam title

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NEW YORK — For a decade, tennis fans have asked who will succeed Venus and Serena Williams as the next U.S. champion. Sloane Stephens answered the last two weeks at the U.S. Open and emphatically so on Saturday.

Stephens was near flawless in her first Grand Slam final, dancing around countrywoman and friend Madison Keys 6-3, 6-0 at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The viral moment came after, when she looked eye-poppingly astonished at receiving the $3.7 million winner’s check in a white envelope labeled “Sloane Stephens.”

“Did you see that check that lady handed me?” Stephens said later in the press room. “Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will.”

Not bad after missing 10 months due to a foot injury. The Jan. 23 surgery — and following four months unable to walk — was still in Stephens’ mind during her trophy acceptance speech.

“If someone told me then that I’d win the U.S. Open, it’s impossible,” she said. “I should just retire now. I told Maddie [Keys], I’m never going to be able to top this.”

Stephens, a 24-year-old daughter of a Pro Bowl running back and All-America swimmer, became the 12th U.S. woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open Era since 1968. And the first other than the Williams sisters in nearly 16 years.

A U.S. man hasn’t won a Grand Slam singles title in 14 years, by far the longest drought in history.

Arguably the fastest woman on tour, Stephens was the cleaner player Saturday afternoon, just as she was against Venus Williams in Thursday’s semifinals.

She didn’t make an unforced error until the ninth game. The power-serving Keys had committed 13 by then. Stephens had only six for the match versus 30 for Keys.

“I made six unforced errors in the whole match?” she retorted to a reporter, beaming. “Shut the front door.”

Stephens’ pre-match strategy worked.

“I literally was looking at car reviews last night on Auto Trader,” she said. “That’s how bored I was.”

A Grand Slam tennis season that began with Venus and Serena meeting in their first major final in more than seven years ended with Stephens and Keys, 22, showcasing what could be the near future of American tennis.

Serena, 35, has been out since winning the Australian Open in January due to pregnancy. She gave birth Sept. 1 to a girl and hopes to return to defend her title in Melbourne and match Margaret Court‘s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.

Venus, 37, won more Grand Slam singles matches than any woman this year, making two finals and a semifinal here. It was her best season in the better part of a decade, but how much does she have left?

While Venus and Serena marched toward each other at that Australian Open, Stephens and Keys spent January at home texting each other. Stephens said if she could face any player in the U.S. Open final, it would be Keys.

“I told her [after the match] I wish there could be a draw because I wished we could have both won,” Stephens said.

The former No. 11 player Stephens came back from surgery July 4 and didn’t win a match until Aug. 7. Her ranking fell to No. 957 in early August because of the missed time.

On Monday, she’ll be No. 17 and the fourth-highest-ranked American (Serena is fifth at No. 22). A big change from 2010, when Venus and Serena were the only Americans to finish the year ranked in the top 57.

Keys, who at age 14 won her first WTA main-draw match and was featured in Sports Illustrated next to Jordan Spieth, underwent two wrist surgeries in the last 11 months.

“If you told me as I was getting on a plane to go have my second surgery that I could have a Grand Slam finalist trophy in my hands at the end of the year, I think I’d be really happy,” she said, adding that she’s been invited to Stephens’ celebration (and joked she wants her drinks paid for). “Today came down to nerves and all of that, and I just don’t think I handled the occasion perfectly.”

Both players fulfilled promise in the last few years by reaching the Australian Open semifinals — Stephens by bouncing Serena Williams in 2013 and Keys overcoming Venus Williams in 2015.

But given each player’s injury setbacks, neither was expected to challenge deep into the second week in New York. Stephens lost in the first round at Wimbledon. Keys was bounced in the second round of the French Open and Wimbledon.

Stephens had no words after match point. Not even a scream. She just covered her mouth. She had plenty to say on court about 20 minutes later, punctuated by this story:

“When I was 11 years old, my mom took me to a tennis academy,” Stephens said on court, with her mother, Sybil Smith, looking on from the crowd. “One of the directors there told my mom that I’d be lucky if I was a Division II player and I got a scholarship. I think any parent that ever supports their child, you can be me one day. So parents, never give up on your kids. If they want to do something, always encourage them.”

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U.S. women to win Grand Slam singles titles (Open Era since 1968)
Billie Jean King
(12 total, including pre-Open Era)
Nancy Richey (2)
Chris Evert (18)
Barbara Jordan (1)
Martina Navratilova (18)
Tracy Austin (2)
Monica Seles (9, with 8 coming while she competed for Yugoslavia)
Lindsay Davenport (3)
Serena Williams (23)
Venus Williams (7)
Jennifer Capriati (3)
Sloane Stephens (1)

Stephens after receiving the winner’s check. (AP)

Ashley Wagner details dropping ‘La La Land’ free skate

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Ashley Wagner, the pre-eminent U.S. female figure skater of the last decade, changed her mind on one of the most significant decisions a skater can make going into the Olympic season.

Wagner, the 2016 World silver medalist and three-time U.S. champion, tossed out the new free skate she had been working on last month.

It was set to music from “La La Land,” which earned a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations earlier this year and won six Oscars (and, briefly, infamously, a seventh for Best Picture).

Now, she’s back to music from “Moulin Rouge.” It accompanied her free skate in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

Those years, Wagner posted the highest free skate scores in U.S. Championships history and for an American in international competition history.

“I really did love the [‘La La Land’] program,” Wagner said Wednesday, while promoting the Dick’s Sporting Goods Contenders program, which assists 41 Winter Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls with their preparation for the PyeongChang Winter Games.

“I was very passionate about what I was doing,” she continued. “I started training it day to day, and the music is beautiful. But just something wasn’t quite clicking, and the character didn’t really feel as complicated as I wanted her to be. There really didn’t feel like there was much of an emotional range. And I love drama. I love having those moments.”

The return to “Moulin Rouge” came abruptly as Wagner described it. One day at practice in early August, she consulted her steely coach, Armenian Rafael Arutyunyan.

“Is this program good?” Wagner asked.

“Yeah, it’s a really good program,” Arutyunyan responded.

“Is it good enough? Is this going to get me through the Olympics?” she pressed.

Arutyunyan told Wagner to put “Moulin Rouge” music on and skate.

“I made it to the first double Axel in the program,” Wagner said. “He turns off the program, and he goes, this is the program I want you to do.”

Wagner agreed.

“It’s my Olympic moment,” she said Wednesday, “and this is the person I want to be at the Olympics.”

Wagner, who lives and trains in Southern California, said publicly as far back as February that she wanted to skate to “La La Land” at the Olympics. Skaters usually wait until after the preceding season ends in early spring to announce program music for the following season.

But Wagner was so enamored that she texted her choreographer from a movie theater to say she had chosen “La La Land” for her Olympic free skate.

Wagner’s 11-year senior international career is marked by ups and downs, tears and several concussions. She identified with the film’s theme of hope.

“I love the music. I still do,” she said. “I just think that it was very much like an inspirational kind of a setup. I loved that. I loved the choreography. I can’t speak highly enough of the music. But I just know myself, and I know that after a couple of months of just one emotion, I get bored.”

Two weeks after the switch, Wagner performed to “Moulin Rouge” at last month’s U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp. At Champs Camp, skaters receive preseason feedback from officials on programs before debuting them in competition.

“I gave them the opportunity to see ‘La La Land’ if they wanted to, but everyone at U.S. Figure Skating was very supportive of my decision,” Wagner said.

Wagner said she will make her Olympic season debut at a small, local event. She won’t say where or when it will be. Her international season debut is at Skate Canada the last weekend of October.

She’s gearing up for the U.S. Championships in January, after which three women will be named to the Olympic team. That team will be chosen by a committee based on results not only at nationals but also previous top-level competitions.

Wagner is familiar with the selection process.

She was the top U.S. woman in fall 2009 but finished third at the 2010 U.S. Championships and was left off the two-woman Olympic team.

Wagner was fourth at the 2014 U.S. Championships and placed on the three-woman Olympic team over third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu. Wagner earned that spot based on performing the best of all U.S. women nationally and internationally the previous year.

Now 26 years old, Wagner can become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928.

Wagner wants to separate from her own past this season, even as she performs to music associated with some of the biggest triumphs of her career.

Skating to “Moulin Rouge” again last month, “made me feel like the athlete that I was at 2016 Worlds, so that definitely made me feel nostalgic,” she said, referencing moving from fourth to second in the free skate in Boston to become the first U.S. world medalist in a decade. “Maybe that’s why I like this program so much.”

But judges may want to see something new.

So Wagner added professional dancer Benji Schwimmer to her choreography team. Schwimmer has worked with Wagner’s best friend and training partner Adam Rippon.

“This is a new season,” Wagner said, “and hopefully somewhat of a new version of Moulin Rouge.”

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Officer body checks fan at world road cycling championships (video)

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A man dressed as a police officer leveled a fan at the world road cycling championships men’s time trial in Bergen, Norway, on Wednesday.

Spectators often run up close enough to touch riders on mountain stages at the Tour de France.

However, this man in a red hooded sweatshirt was decked while chasing German Tony Martin from two or three strides behind near the summit finish of a 19-mile time trial.

Martin, eyeing his record fifth world title in the time trial, was ninth on a course not suited to his strengths.

A full recap of the race is here.

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