“When I had surgery, I was not thinking that I would be anywhere near a US Open title,” said Sloane Stephens.
Sloane Stephens was planning to spend Saturday night in New York celebrating with Madison Keys, hours after beating her friend to a first Grand Slam title.
The 24-year-old American, ranked 83rd until Monday, thrashed 15th seed Keys 6-3 6-0 in just 61 minutes to complete a scarcely believable return from injury.
Asked if she would be buying the drinks, Stephens confirmed: “Yes, a lot of them apparently. We are having a little celebration and she is coming.”
Just 69 days after returning from an 11-month injury lay-off, and six weeks since her ranking dropped to 957, Stephens became only the fifth unseeded woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era.
And she later revealed it was boredom as much as nerves that threatened to upset her equilibrium during the 48 hours between semi-final and final at Flushing Meadows.
“I was literally in my room twiddling my thumbs,’ she said. “I was looking at car reviews last night on Auto Trader, like literally. That’s how bored I was. I didn’t have anything to do.”
Stephens admitted that the nerves finally took hold as she stepped out onto Arthur Ashe Stadium – but a little over an hour later her eyes were bulging as a cheque for $3.7m (£2.8m) was handed to her and she was announced as a Grand Slam champion.
She said: “There are no words to describe how I got here, because if you told someone this story they’d be, like, ‘that’s insane’.”
It is four years since Stephens first grabbed worldwide headlines when she beat compatriot Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarter-finals.
The likes of NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal and Dirk Nowitzki, and singer John Legend, congratulated her on social media, and a star had seemingly been born.
In the event, progress was harder going until 2016 when she won three titles, cementing her place in the top 30 and apparently on the up.
A right foot stress fracture halted that momentum, forcing her to withdraw from the US Open last August, and she would not return until Wimbledon.
Surgery followed in January and for the next 16 weeks Stephens was on crutches and unable to put any pressure on her foot.
Just a month before Wimbledon, she was still wearing a protective boot.
“There is no positive to not being able to walk and being on one leg,” said Stephens. “That’s not fun for anyone.”
Finally, Stephens stepped back on court in July – and first-round defeats at Wimbledon and in Washington were entirely predictable. Her ranking plummeted to 957.
What followed was, in her own words on Saturday night, “insane”.
The victory over Keys was her 15th in 17 matches, the kind of form shown by someone vying to be number one rather than avoid slipping outside the top 1,000.
“When I had surgery, I was not thinking that I would be anywhere near a US Open title,” she said.
“Nor did I think I was going to be anywhere near the top 100.”
Sybil Smith made her tournament debut in the player box for the final as her daughter made history.
“It was nice that we got it right for the two weeks, and I came out with the title,” said Stephens.
It is eight years since Stephens attended her father’s funeral on the eve of the US Open, after he died in a car accident in Louisiana.
Estranged from the family, John Stephens had been a running back for the New England Patriots, the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs.
But it was her mother, Sybil, an all-American swimmer, who brought up Stephens, and that included introducing the nine-year-old to tennis.
“Obviously my whole life my mum has been very supportive,” said Stephens. “She’s been in my corner the whole time.
“I have had a lot of ups and a lot of downs – and some really low downs – and throughout that, my mum has been there 100% with me.”
Inspired to play tennis?
It was at a tennis academy in her native Florida that Stephens learned the game, and also where she met Laura Robson as an 11-year-old.
The British number four, 23, was clearly moved on Saturday night by seeing two of her friends and contemporaries on the US Open presentation stage, posting on social media: “Who’s cutting onions?”
Robson might use both women as inspiration for her own struggle back up the rankings following injury.
Stephens has spent as much time in 2017 as a TV presenter on a US tennis channel – what Keys described as “her second job” – as she has on court, helping fill her time during the 11-month injury lay-off.
Describing herself as in “a sad place”, the television work proved to be a boost to morale.
Paul Annacone, ex-coach of Pete Sampras, worked with Stephens for eight months in 2014, and again on her TV work this year. He believes the extended break from tennis had some benefit.
“I think it has helped Sloane become more focused and realise that the window is closing, ever so slightly,” he told BBC Radio 5 live.
“That’s allowed her to go on court with a much more relentless ability to compete and deal with adversity.
“I think historically she has got a little bit nervous in stages, and then when adversity has set in she’s struggled a little bit to compete through it.
“This summer, Sloane’s been amazing with adversity.”
The semi-final victory over fellow American Venus Williams in New York took her record in three-set matches this summer to 8-0.
‘He should have got a hat-trick’
Stephens will not be short of family and friends, including Keys, to celebrate with in New York.
Her coach, Kamau Murray, and team have exuded calm, happily posing with fans in the public plaza at Flushing Meadows earlier in the week.
It is unlikely Serena Williams joined the party eight days after giving birth to her first child, but the 23-time Grand Slam champion posted her support on social media before the final.
“There are NO words to describe how proud and how happy I am,” Williams said on Twitter.
One person absent from the player box on Arthur Ashe Stadium was Stephens’ boyfriend, Jozy Altidore, a former forward for Sunderland in the Premier League, now leading the line for Toronto FC.
Otherwise engaged in MLS action against San Jose, he revealed that he found out the result of the final from his mother in the stands at half-time.
Altidore then scored twice in the second half of a 4-0 win.
“That’s really good,” said Stephens, before adding: “He should have got a hat-trick. It would have been such a good day. Goodness.”