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)

Kendall Gretsch wins six gold medals at Para Nordic Ski Worlds

Kendall Gretsch
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Kendall Gretsch, who won Paralympic titles at the last Summer and Winter Games, added another six gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Sweden last week.

Gretsch, 30, earned seven total medals in seven days between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Gretsch won gold medals in three different sports across the last three Paralympics: biathlon and cross-country skiing in 2018 (two years after taking up the sports), triathlon in 2021 and biathlon in 2022.

She plans to shift her focus back to triathlon after this winter for 2024 Paris Games qualification.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year. Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for the 2016 Rio Games, her classification was not added until Tokyo.

Also at last week’s worlds, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike earned his first Paralympic or world championships gold medal in his decade-plus career, winning a 12.5km biathlon event.

Oksana Masters, who won seven medals in seven events at last year’s Paralympics to break the career U.S. Winter Paralympics medals record, missed worlds due to hand surgery.

The U.S. also picked up five medals at last week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Spain — three silvers for five-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens and two bronzes for 17-year-old Saylor O’Brien.

Stephens now has 18 career medals from world championships, plus seven at the Paralympics.

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World champion skier Kyle Smaine dies in avalanche at age 31

Kyle Smaine
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Kyle Smaine, a retired world champion halfpipe skier, died in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, according to NBC News, citing Smaine’s father. He was 31.

Smaine, a 2015 World champion in ski halfpipe, had been doing ski filming in Japan, sharing videos on his Instagram account over the past week.

The native of South Lake Tahoe, California, finished ninth in ski halfpipe at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.

In 2018, Smaine won the fifth and final U.S. Olympic qualifying series event in ski halfpipe but did not make the four-man team for PyeongChang. His last sanctioned international competition was in February 2018.

Late Sunday, two-time Olympic champion David Wise won the X Games men’s ski halfpipe and dedicated it to Smaine.

“We all did this for Kyle tonight,” Wise said on the broadcast. “It’s a little bit of an emotional day for us. We lost a friend.”