Sloane Stephens finding her baseline before the US Open

Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Sloane Stephens is in uncharted territory. It's one month before the start of the US Open in Flushing Meadows, New York, and Stephens, the defending champ, is in Atlanta to play Madison Keys in an exhibition match to kick off the ATP's Atlanta Open. Thing is, it's Georgia in the summer, and the match, which was scheduled to take place the night before, was rained out. Tickets were exchanged. Autographs were signed. And Stephens' first opportunity to play her good friend on a hard court since beating her 6-3, 6-0 in last year's US Open final -- and shake off the jitters about defending her first Grand Slam title -- went unfulfilled.

But if any personality trait best defines Stephens, it is her ability to move past yesterday and prepare herself for the future -- that skill has been tested as frequently as her stealthy footwork in the past year.

"We play a lot of months out of the year, and we have a lot of ups and downs," Stephens said via phone while fulfilling sponsor obligations in Atlanta. "Different people win tournaments every week. You can have one really bad week and come back and win the next tournament. Tennis is an emotional sport. You can play badly one week and want to fire your coach. Or you think your fitness is down, so you want to fire your fitness guy. There is always something going wrong. But you can always work through your problems if you step back and take a breath. That is true in tennis and in life."

From the jump, Stephens' career has been a series of crests and canyons, from her 2013 win over Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open at age 19, to a stress fracture in her left foot that sidelined her for nearly a year after the 2016 Rio Olympics, to last year's US Open win. Through it all, or at least through most of it, Stephens has managed to maintain her legendary, if sometimes indecipherable, calm.

"But this will be defending a Grand Slam," she said, slowly emphasizing the last two words in that sentence. "That's a whole 'nother beast. I will be very nervous. I never imagined in a million years that I'd even be in this position. So whether I do completely terrible or very, very well again, there will be a lesson learned and things I will take away from the experience."

That is a chorus Stephens has echoed after nearly every match this season. No matter the result, Stephens spends time during postmatch interviews reminding the media there is more to her life than tennis, that although she is a professional player who is sitting in front of them, she will not be defined by any one day in her life. Not by a loss in the final at this year's French Open or a first-round loss at Wimbledon, or even by a US Open win.

To some in the sport, however, that lack of emotion -- in response to winning, losing or a bad call on the court -- is cause to question her fire for the game. Her personality simply doesn't seem to vibe with the volatile fight-or-flight sport of professional tennis.

"I'm a very neutral person in general," Stephens says. "Even if the greatest thing in the world happens, I'm like, 'OK, that happened.' If someone dies, I might cry, but I think, 'It's going to be OK,' and I move on. I don't know why I am like that. My mom and my boyfriend are always like, 'Why aren't you more upset? Why aren't you more excited?' I don't know. I just am."

After her performance in New York, which surprised no one more than Stephens, that chill was tested. Less than two months before, she'd returned to competition at Wimbledon as her ranking dropped to No. 957 in the world and lost in the first round. She then played in three warm-up hard-court tournaments ahead of the US Open unseeded and knew that no matter how she finished, she would exceed all expectations.

"It was so out of the blue, so sudden," Stephens said of her US Open win. "I was playing and having a good time. Afterward, I thought to myself, 'What if I never make another Grand Slam final, never have a result like this again?'"

For a few months, it seemed that premonition might come true. She didn't win a match for nearly five months and lost in the opening round of the 2018 Australian Open. But once Stephens realized she was holding herself back by comparing every outing to her experience in New York, she began to relax and win matches again.

"Once I got [the US Open] out of my mind, it allowed me to move on," Stephens said. "Then I won Miami, made the finals in Paris and allowed myself to be successful in other areas. To have the perspective that that was an amazing result, one of the best things that could happen in my career, to be an American and win the US Open, but I had to move on. Once I got out of that 'US Open, US Open, US Open' mindset, I was able to refocus and be like, 'OK, I want to do other stuff. I want to win other tournaments.'"

In a recent interview with ESPN.com, Venus Williams said that over her 20-year career, as she's worked to find balance in her professional and personal lives, she's learned it is nearly impossible to even the scales all the time. "I try to make sure to keep everything important on the forefront," Williams said. "But I think the best people are a little bit unbalanced." The key is figuring out where to place one's unwavering attention at any given time.

Right now, Stephens is focused on New York, where she hopes to become the 10th woman to defend her US Open title, and the sixth American woman to do so. Never in her career has Stephens come into a tournament with so much expectation. She is currently enjoying a career-high ranking of No. 3 in the world and, over the past five months, has won the Miami Open, made the final of the French and Rogers Cup, and signed on as a global ambassador for Mercedes-Benz. (For the record, she drives a GLE 63 S Coupe.)

"I have never defended a title that I've won. I've never had the opportunity," Stephens said, then elaborated. "I've won six tournaments in my career, and I've never been playing when I had to defend a title."

On that point, she's almost accurate. In July 2016, Stephens returned to the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., to defend the first WTA title of her career and lost in straight sets in the opening round to Japanese teenager Risa Ozaki. Five of her six titles came between January 2016 and April 2018, but because she was sidelined for nearly a year with her foot injury, the US Open is her first opportunity to defend a title since the Citi Open, an experience unremarkable enough that, quite frankly, Stephens didn't remember it happened at all.

"I try to have a short-term memory," Stephens said. "After [this year's] French Open, I was so sad, so devastated. But I was like, 'OK, go home. You have two weeks. It will be fine.' Then I had a sh---- Wimbledon. 'OK, it will be fine.' And it was. I got an ESPY award, got to travel with Madi, and now I'm getting ready to play in the US Open. It's never all bad. It's nice, fun, grueling, but at the end of the day, I have a very good life. I play a sport for a living. I'm not a doctor. I'm not saving lives. My role in life is so insignificant. I play a sport on TV for entertainment. Enjoying your life is the most important thing."

With that kind of perspective, Stephens should be able to navigate just about anything.