Sloane Stephens needed nearly two-and-a-half hours to land the trophy at the Abierto Akron Zapopan title in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Sunday, defeating Czech Marie Bouzkova, 7-5 1-6 6-2, to capture her first title in four years.
I think I prepared all last year, I committed to training and my fitness and everything. Obviously I didn’t get results right away, but now seeing the fruits of that labour blossom is nice. I still want to get back to where I was, that’s still really important to me. I think it’s possible, it’s do-able, so I’m really excited about that. Sloane Stephens
The 2017 US Open champion, who was once the World No 3 but came into Guadalajara ranked 57, managed to outlast her 23-year old opponent to add Guadalajara to her career tally of 7 titles, which include the New York Grand Slam and a WTA 1000 crown at Miami in March of 2018.
The 28-year Floridian, though, was 0-3 in her last championship match appearances, and had not reached one since making the last 2 at the year-ending WTA Finals in 2018 but has now ended that drought.
In winning in Guadalajara, Stephens finally added another title, becoming the 3rd American to win a WTA singles title this season, alongside Amanda Anisimova at Melbourne Summer Set 2 and Madison Keys at Adelaide International 2.
“It’s the beginning of the season, so there’s still a lot of tennis to be played, but I’m excited to be able to put some matches together,” Stephens said, after her win. “Excited that I was able to do that, get a title, and hopefully continue on with that momentum.”
While Stephens did not face a Top 95 player en route to the title, she dropped sets in her last 3 matches, including against Bouzkova on Sunday against whom she levelled her head-to-head to 1-1.
The Czech, who was seeking her first title in her 3rd final, led with breaks in the first two sets, but only managed to win the one set.
It was a solid runner-up finish for Bouzkova, whose success has come primarily on hard courts, and she improved her semi-final run on her Guadalajara debut last season.
In Sunday’s final, a lob winner onto the baseline gave Bouzkova the first break and a 3-1 lead, but Stephens pulled back on serve 3 games later, slamming a volley winner on break point.
At 5-5, Bouzkova double-faulted when down a break point, handing Stephens a chance to serve for the one-set lead, which the American grabbed with relish.
The Czech, though, rebounded in the second, which was one-way traffic in her favour, Bouzkova breaking Stephens at 1-0 and 4-1, and never facing a break point as she levelled up proceedings.
The rallies became even more extended in the decider, but Stephens took control after the midway point of the set.
At 3-2, Bouzkova saw a 40-0 lead slip away as Stephens chipped away at the game to notch the first break of the set after which the American’s forehand began to rack up the points from there on in, and she closed out the championship with a winner from that wing.
“I think I prepared all last year, I committed to training and my fitness and everything,” Stephens said.“Obviously I didn’t get results right away, but now seeing the fruits of that labour blossom is nice.
“I still want to get back to where I was, that’s still really important to me. I think it’s possible, it’s do-able, so I’m really excited about that.”
Stephens, who married 32-year old Jozy Altidore, an American professional soccer player in Miami Beach on 1 January, now will see her ranking jump from 57 back to No 39, which could result in a seeding slot at the upcoming Masters events at Indian Wells and Miami.
Off court, Stephens is a champion of health and abuse issue and, a couple of weeks ago, she revealed that she has been going to therapy since the age of 13, a process which has helped her navigate her career of a pro tennis player.
“I’m one of those people who now finds it very easy to say how I feel, but I’ve gone to therapy since I was 13 years old,” Stephens said. “My mom is a psychologist, so I’ve had an extreme amount of support, but a lot of people don’t have that.
“I want people to be able to have that support and not feel judged when they feel something.”
She admitted life was difficult when she first began her journey on the WTA Tour, but has since learned to cope with any negative emotions associated with playing professional tennis.
“When I was 18 or 19 years old and a professional athlete learning my way through life, I was also juggling millions of people watching me play tennis every day,” she said. “It was just unbearable, but now that I’m able to recognise [when I’m not feeling well], now I know I can identify those, I find it great.
“I’m able to manage those emotions a lot easier because I know that I need to take a minute for myself. I can manage myself easier now.
”I’m thankful that I’ve been able to share my story and a lot of people have been super supportive of seeing me as myself, as a human and not just Sloane Stephens, the athlete.
“Once people are able to accept that there’s a ‘you’ underneath the athlete or the celebrity, it’s a lot easier to be human.”
In addition to mental health, Stephens has also raised the issue of online abuse, admitting last year to receiving more than 2,000 messages of racist and sexist comments after losing to Germany’s Angelique Kerber at the US Open in September.
She bravely posted examples of the abuse in an Instagram story, adding: “I am human. It’s so hard to read messages like these.
“This type of hate is so exhausting and never ending. This isn’t talked about enough, but it really sucks.”
Extremely passionate about her foundation, created in 2013, the American spends a lot of time continuing to expand the programming of the Sloane Stephens Foundation, which uses tennis and education to change the narrative of poverty, health inequity, and educational underdevelopment.
Indeed, Stephens is a worthy champion both on and off the court.
Earlier on Sunday, the doubles title was won by No 3 seeds Kaitlyn Christian & Lidziya Marozava, who defeated the all-Chinese pairing of Wang Xinyu & Zhu Lin, 7-5 6-3.
Wang & Zhu were alternates into the draw, replacing the No 2-seeded team of Hailey Baptiste & Caty McNally after McNally withdrew due to a right hand injury.
The Chinese duo took that opportunity and made it all the way to the final, winning their quarter-final and semi-final matches in straight sets.
The American-Belarusian pair, however, proved too strong for them in the final, and Christian & Marozava prevailed in an hour and 21 minutes, converting 7 of their 12 break points and winning exactly two-thirds of points returning second serves in the match.
For Christian, it was a long-awaited first WTA doubles title as the 30-year-old had gone 0-for-5 in her 5 previous doubles finals on tour.
It is Marozava’s 3rd WTA doubles title, with the 29-year-old also picking up titles at 2017 Luxembourg (with Lesley Pattinama Kerkhove) and Gdynia last year (with Anna Danilina).