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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MORE: Serena comments on 2020 Olympics while pregnant

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)

Daniel Romanchuk’s ascent to marathon stardom accelerated at University of Illinois

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The rise of Daniel Romanchuk has been one of the major stories of this Paralympic cycle. The wheelchair racer was eliminated in the first round of all five of his races in Rio.

But now, he’s the world’s best marathoner with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, a world-record holder on the track and already qualified for the Tokyo Games.

Romanchuk, born with spina bifida, was profiled by NBC Sports Chicago as part of a series of NBC Sports Regional Networks pieces published this week — marking 150 days until the Tokyo Olympics and six months until the Tokyo Paralympics.

NBC RSN Olympic and Paralympic Profiles
NBC Sports Bay Area

Abbey Weitzeil (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Boston
Margaret Bertasi (Rowing) — LINK
Abbey D’Agostino Cooper (Track and Field) — LINK

NBC Sports Chicago
Ryan Murphy (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Northwest
Galen Rupp (Marathon) — LINK
Mariel Zagunis (Fencing) — LINK

NBC Sports Philadelphia
Vashti Cunningham (Track and Field) — LINK
Julie Ertz (Soccer) — LINK

NBC Sports Washington
Katie Ledecky (Swimming) — LINK
Kyle Snyder (Wrestling) — LINK

Romanchuk, 21, swept the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City Marathon titles in 2019. He attributes that success to his native Baltimore and his training residence of the University of Illinois.

At age 2, he was enrolled in Baltimore’s Bennett Blazers, an adaptive sports program for children with physical disabilities. Tatyana McFadden, a 17-time Paralympic medalist who dominated women’s wheelchair marathons, also began her career there.

“Their motto is to teach kids they can before they’re told they can’t,” Romanchuk said.

Things really blossomed for Romanchuk after he moved from Baltimore to the University of Illinois. Illinois was designated a U.S. Paralympic training site in 2014 and has produced McFadden, Jean Driscoll and other U.S. Paralympic stars.

“Without this program, I certainly would not be where I am,” Romanchuk said. “It’s a very unique combination of coaching and teammates.”

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Chloé Dygert wanted to be Steve Prefontaine. Then Larry Bird. Now, her coach.

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Chloé Dygert is the U.S.’ top cyclist, an Olympic medalist and world champion in line to race on the track and the road at the Tokyo Games.

To get to this point — leading the American contingent at the world track cycling championships this week — Dygert was kicked off a soccer team, bribed by her father and, when she thought her career was over, enrolled in 5 a.m. classes to get back on the bike.

“I had no interest in being a cyclist. I did not want to be a cyclist,” she said. “The funny thing is, my dad kept getting me bikes.”

It began in Brownsburg, Ind., a 25,000-person town 15 miles northwest of Indianapolis. Dygert had an older brother, younger brother and a BMX dirt bike track on a 4.5-acre property.

She played soccer, but was moved from the girls’ team to the boys. Dygert developed physically earlier than the other girls. And, “I was a little too mean and aggressive,” she said.

She played basketball but broke too many bones — her own and those of other girls. “Not on purpose,” she said, “but I was just so much bigger and naturally so much stronger.”

Dygert ran cross-country, too, but none of those sports worked out.

“I was going to be Steve Prefontaine,” she said of the fabled 1972 Olympian. “I had some injuries, and I started playing basketball. I was going to be Larry Bird. I had some more injuries, and cycling was just kind of my go-to.”

Dygert, at first reluctant, picked up cycling at the urging of her father, David, a mountain biker. She received bikes for Christmas and her New Year’s birthday, but it wasn’t until later, when she was 15, that her father’s words changed her life.

That summer, when Dygert needed a shoulder surgery from a basketball injury, she went for a ride at a local park with her father. David marveled.

“He said, ‘Chloe, I don’t think a girl your age should be able to put out the power that you’re putting out,'” Dygert remembered. “That kind of stuck with me and got me into wanting to ride a little bit more and seeing where I could go with it.”

David lured her: a pair of Oakleys if Dygert won at her first major competition. She entered junior nationals and grabbed a victory.

“That’s kind of what gave me the motivation to keep going,” she said. “It took me a while to actually love the sport. It definitely was not an interest that I had. But I thrive on winning. I love to win.”

Dygert pursued cycling, but she didn’t stop basketball. Everything changed when she tore an ACL on the court at age 17, a nine-month injury. She never returned to competitive basketball, but she also lost motivation to get back on the bike. Again, David urged her. One last time.

She joined the cycling team at Marian University, a private Catholic school in Indianapolis. David signed her up for 5 a.m. classes.

“I’m still not happy about it,” she said. “I got really disciplined.”

And reinvigorated. The freshman Dygert noticed in a power booster class that her wattage was impressive.

“If it wasn’t for that and the structure and the discipline that I had gotten from that and my dad, I would not be here,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by, I’m just so thankful for that and for him.”

Dygert dropped out after that first fall semester to focus on a cycling career. That winter, she won a world title with the U.S. team pursuit and was named to become the youngest female U.S. Olympic track cyclist in history.

“I see myself being a Kristin Armstrong, following in her footsteps, being a good all-around rider and a very good time trialist,” Dygert said before earning team pursuit silver at the Rio Olympics, according to The Associated Press.

Armstrong earned her third Olympic road time trial title in Rio, a day before turning 43. She retired and transitioned from Dygert’s mentor to her coach. Dygert recently moved to Armstrong’s native Idaho.

On the eve of September’s world road cycling championships time trial, Armstrong told Dygert to make sure she hurt more than any other rider on the 18-mile course. Dygert obeyed. She went out and won by 92 seconds, the largest margin in history, to become the youngest world champion ever in the event. She collapsed onto the pavement getting off her bike.

“I didn’t race with a power meter,” Dygert said that day, “and I think that really helped not restricting myself, just kind of going as fast as I could the entire time and not really have anything to gauge it off of.”

It qualified Dygert for the Tokyo Olympics on the road. The track team hasn’t been named, but Dygert will surely anchor a new team pursuit quartet. The U.S. has never won an Olympic women’s track title, but the pursuit has been its trademark event — world titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Olympic silver medals in 2012 and 2016.

The only woman on both of those Olympic teams retired (Sarah Hammer).

The cycling community was floored when Kelly Catlin, on all three world title teams with Dygert, committed suicide last March at age 23.

“It’s definitely hard not having her there, but we will carry her legacy on,” Dygert said. “She will be with us every step of the way when we win gold in Tokyo.”

The U.S. women’s team pursuit finished seventh at last year’s worlds without Catlin and without Dygert, who sat out nearly a year after a May 2018 concussion from a road crash. Dygert wondered if she might not be able to come back from the head injury. Expectations were tempered when she and a new team entered a November World Cup in Belarus.

A coach predicted nothing faster than 4 minutes, 17 seconds. They clocked 4:13 and won in what Dygert believed was the U.S.’ second-fastest time since the Rio Games.

“We’ve never raced together before,” Dygert said. “We didn’t really know what we would be able to do.”

Dygert is bidding to race in three events in Tokyo — road race (July 26), road time trial (July 29) and team pursuit (Aug. 3-4). People compare combining the road and the track to training for both the sprints and the marathon. The plurality of the focus will be on the time trial and follow the path set by Armstrong.

“We’re going to be smart about which event that we choose to be full gas for so my fitness is still there for all the other events,” Dygert said. “Being fit for the time trial will also correlate for the track.”

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