A winner’s trophy, a slice of pizza and a day to remember for Sloane Stephens

A winner’s trophy, a slice of pizza and a day to remember for Sloane Stephens

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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Sir Pizza is a lot like many other pizza joints. It’s in a small mall, at the corner of Westwood Drive and Crandon Blvd., a short drive from Crandon Park. The place has a brick-colored tile floor and hanging faux Tiffany lamps. The booths have hard seats made of shiny laminated wood. There’s even a Tupperware container with a masking tape band marked “tips.”

Doesn’t seem like anything special, but there’s sentiment. Among all the things Sloane Stephens will miss most about playing here at the Miami Open is Sir Pizza. After three decades at this much-loved venue on Key Biscayne is moving for 2019 and beyond to a new home on the mainland at the Hard Rock stadium.

“I’ve been going to [Sir Pizza] since I was 12,” Stephens, a native of Plantation, Florida, said earlier this week. “I grew up playing tennis here, like when I was 12 or 13. We played the Orange Bowl here. The USTA used to be here, so we came down here to practice. I’m kind of sad that it’s leaving.”

But there was no cause for sadness Saturday afternoon, as Stephens delighted the capacity crowd at Crandon Park with an overwhelming performance, crushing No. 5 Jelena Ostapenko 7-6 (5), 6-1.

Stephens brought her career finals record to 6-0 by claiming her first Premier Mandatory title. Overcoming an early case of nerves, she hit 25 winners to Ostapenko’s six and made just 21 unforced errors — less than half of Ostapenko’s output.

“I’m definitely happy I can be the last person to win here,” Stephens said afterward.

The physical, power-punching Ostapenko and crafty Stephens are both reigning Grand Slam champions. Yet just a year ago at this time, both players were treading water with their rankings in the 60s.

That wasn’t such a bad thing for 19-year-old Ostapenko. About this time in 2017, she was just coming into her own by winning Roland Garros. “The French Open gave me a lot of confidence,” she said Saturday. “The beginning of this year was not so amazing for me, but I was working hard and I played good matches here.”

Stephens, on the other hand, was approaching the midpoint of an 11-month layoff because of a career-threatening foot surgery in April of 2017. Perhaps “career-transforming” foot surgery is a better way to put it. Minor setbacks aside, Stephens bagged the two biggest titles of her career in the past seven months. Punishing and scary as her surgery and rehab were at times, it clearly made Stephens a more resilient, mature competitor.

“When I found out I needed surgery it was like, ‘My life is over,'” she said. “The only thing I had was tennis.”

But during her long period of recuperation, Stephens worked as a guest commentator at the Tennis Channel, finished school and accomplished other goals that career had prevented her from addressing. She said it endowed her with a different perspective: “Just being able to feel good about doing something besides tennis; it just made me feel so good.”

Stephens’ new attitude made it easier for her to handle the ebbs and flows that come with success. After winning the US Open championship, the pot of gold at the end of a 15-2 summer-record rainbow, she went on a six-match losing streak. She didn’t fare much better to start 2018, coming into Miami with a disappointing 3-4 record. What was going on?

Stephens ignored the skeptics.

“I said to myself, ‘There are so many great opportunities, you’re not going to be able to take the title every week and that’s OK,'” she said. “Basically, people who bounce back the best are the ones most able to secure those opportunities.”

The opportunity this week wasn’t presented on a silver platter; more like one of those warped aluminum pizza dishes. Stephens had to hurdle four Grand Slam champions, three of them former No. 1 players, in successive matches, ending in the final.

Against Ostapenko in the final, Stephens did show jitters that led to a slow, anxious start.

“I was nervous,” she said. “My feet stopped moving. I stopped swinging my arms. I just needed to win that first set and start swinging away, to play my game.”

The point that won the first set for Stephens provided a neat snapshot of her innate guile. Ostapenko, who likes to powder the ball, smacked a first serve to Stephens’ backhand. Instead of driving the return, Stephens looped back a semi-moonball that Ostapenko, in her eagerness, drove into the net. Clever.

“She was moving really well,” Ostapenko said of Stephens. “She was changing the pace. She was serving sometimes kick, sometimes going for it. I think she’s a great player.”

This was a big win, an occasion for a major celebration.

“You’re not going to Sir Pizza tonight,” a reporter quipped after her press conference.

“Are you kidding?” Stephens said. “I’m going right now.”

Breaking Sports News

via http://www.espn.com – TOP http://www.espn.com

March 31, 2018 at 04:34PM

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