NEW YORK -- Sloane Stephens started the point with a probing return of Ashleigh Barty's serve. Then she pinned Barty to the baseline with a series of feathery, sliding sliced backhands. Stephens mixed the pace, redirected a shot with her powerful forehand so expertly that it felt like a reboot of the entire point. When Barty finally made an error, it was as though Stephens had managed to tug a pull toy from the mouth of a stubborn bulldog.
It was set point in a dust-up that started out close and stayed that way. But each time Barty got a foothold in the match with a service break, Stephens reeled her back in. She won it 6-2, 6-4 on Friday. That landed her in the fourth round of the US Open for the first time since 2013.
Could Stephens, who's playing in just her fourth tournament after an injury layoff that lasted almost a full year, be ready to shatter that reputation as the Next Big Thing that never happened?
"Thanks so much for coming," she told the Louis Armstrong Stadium crowd, as if she had feared nobody would show up. "I just kept fighting. It's about having opportunities, and I took my chances when I got them."
Fighting, cashing in on opportunities, capitalizing on chances. Those are all things that Stephens didn't always do consistently or with vigor before she was sidelined in 2016 with a stress fracture in her right foot that required surgery. It appears that the hiatus has given her a new outlook. But the way she has roared back to become a player who matters again is also the result of a more aggressive, confident game.
"If I said to you, 'Oh, yeah, I'm going to make back-to-back semis,' you would have been, like, 'Bulls---,'" Stephens told reporters a few weeks ago in Cincinnati, where she reached her second final four in as many weeks. She said Friday she's feeling very good about her game, adding: "Maybe [because] I haven't played that much, my natural instinct is to go for the shot."
Instincts are powerful and trustworthy in a player as fluidly athletic as Stephens. But they're also easily bruised and ultimately denied when a slump or the grind of the tour undermines a player's confidence. That can happen even to someone as talented as Stephens. She could walk across a court covered in potato chips without making a sound. She has all the shots; it's like she speaks nine languages.
Stephens was just 19 when she made her great breakthrough, parlaying an upset of Serena Williams into a semifinal berth at the 2013 Australian Open. Then came the hard part: backing it up.
Too often, Stephens melted back into the WTA wallpaper following a big win or a good run. A number of coaches have come and gone, often stopping barely long enough for a cup of coffee. Stephens embraced frivolity and her status as a rising star. She lit up smartphones all over the world with her Instagram posts. But she never improved on her sensational run of 2013. She didn't even win a tour-level title until the summer of 2015.
Stephens is aware of what a long break and an alteration of schedule has done for the outlook of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. In some ways, her response so far is similar. She has returned to the game refreshed. She's also aware that at this point in the season, she has an advantage on rivals who have been grinding it out on the pro tour with no significant break since the start of the year.
"I was home watching people," she said in Cincinnati. "I just missed being on the court. So I think that kind of helps me now. I'm super eager to get out there and compete and just have fun, and I think that shows now more than anything."
Surgery, and the anxieties that force an athlete to become a mere spectator, are challenges. Stephens was particularly prey to doubt because of the nature of her injury. The foot is an even more important appendage to a tennis player than the arm.
Stephens was obliged to use a medical device called a "peg leg" (a type of brace) following her operation. She said at Wimbledon that it "wasn't fun, actually [it was] kind of embarrassing."
More than that, the process of putting it on and trying to do normal tasks was so onerous that there were days when she decided it wasn't worth trying to do anything. "Some days, it was just like I didn't want to leave the house."
Stephens was left with a new appreciation for the gift of good health. At Wimbledon, in her first tournament back, she was understandably nervous, afraid she might break her foot and fall. Now she's breaking serves and threatening the status quo at the US Open. She's making the best of a fresh start.