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4. Sloane Stephens Swings Her Way Into History

By Larry Bivins

When the curtain closed after the semi-final performances at the U.S. Open, the stage was set for a historic encore. For the first time, two African-American women would play in a Grand Slam final, neither of whom is named Williams, with Sloane Stephens emerging as the victor over Madison Keys.

In the amped-up conversation leading up to the semis of the biggest and final Grand Slam of the tennis season, Sloane was considered a dark horse contender at best. She began the 2017 season on the injured list and had only recently returned to playing at a level that had her pegged as a potential No. 1 contender.

The 24-year-old was out for 11 months, including the first half of the year, with a foot injury. Sloane, who defeated Serena Williams to reach the 2013 Australian Open semi-finals and had been ranked as high as No. 12, had plummeted to No. 957 on the WTA tour. When I saw her play at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., in early August, a tournament she won in 2015, she seemed listless and out of sorts. But she rebounded to reach the semi-finals of her next three tournaments, including the U.S. Open. For the first time ever, three of the four women playing in the women’s singles semi-finals were African American.

The semi-final matchups pitted Sloane against Venus Williams and Madison versus Coco Vandeweghe at night in the 23,000-plus-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest in tennis. In the first match, Sloane’s athleticism and defense proved to be too much for Venus to overcome. Sloane won 6-1, 0-6, 7-5.

“I have no words to describe what I’m feeling, what it took to get here,” Sloane said.

A little later, Madison’s power game prevailed to give her a 6-1, 6-2 victory and set up a championship match against Sloane. It was the first Grand Slam final for both players. The last time two Americans played in the U.S. Open women’s final was in 2002. That was Williams vs. Williams. Serena won.

When Sloane hoisted this year’s silver Tiffany winner’s trophy after the final, it represented another milestone in black tennis history. Although she called it the “Best.Day.Ever.” the WTA’s Comeback Player of the Year claims that a bigger highlight was joining other college grads in her family by earning a bachelor’s in communication studies through Indiana University East’s online program for athletes.

Larry Bivins has worked as a journalist in Miami, New York City, Detroit and Washington, D.C. An avid tennis player, he writes theTennis in the Hood blog to instill a passion for the sport in inner-city neighborhoods throughout America.

Sloane Stephens’ victory came on the 60th anniversary of Althea Gibson’s back-to-back championships in the United States and at Wimbledon. Click here to learn more.