LONDON (AP) Sloane Stephens hadn’t played a competitive match in nearly a year because of an injured left foot, so when she stepped on the grass of Wimbledon on Tuesday, simply being there was significant.
“Just getting on the court, I was relieved, I was happy, excited,” Stephens said. “I mean, all good emotions.”
Less than six months after foot surgery, Stephens returned to action with a 6-2, 7-5 loss to Alison Riske in an all-U.S. matchup in the first round at the All England Club.
Stephens was a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon in 2013, back when she appeared to be a rising star in tennis, making at least the fourth round at six consecutive Grand Slam tournaments. She reached the semifinals at the Australian Open earlier that year and climbed to a career-high No. 11 in the WTA rankings.
But she had a stress reaction in her foot last year, something she said was bothering her when she lost in the first round at the Rio Olympics. That was Stephens’ fourth loss in a row – her most recent victory came in the second round of Wimbledon a year ago – and the last time she participated in a tournament until Tuesday.
Stephens wore a walking boot for months after the Olympics, waiting to heal.
“They’re like, `It will get better,’ and whatever. Obviously it didn’t,” she said.
She thought she’d be able to play again at the start of this year and even traveled to Australia, intending to enter a tournament in Sydney. But while Stephens was there, the foot wasn’t feeling right, and an MRI showed that it had worsened: She had a stress fracture and wound up having surgery in January, which alleviated the pain.
During her time off, she did some television work for Tennis Channel.
And about 1+ months ago, she resumed training.
Her ranking now down to 336th, the 24-year-old Stephens had permission from her doctor to get back to tournament play, she said, “So I was like, `Why not?”‘
“I did the best I could. I’m pleased with – I mean, obviously not that I didn’t win – but that I was able to get out there and I was pain-free,” she said. “I played decent.”
Stephens recognizes that it will take time for her to get her game back to where it used to be and to grow accustomed to dealing with match play.
“When they said I was playing her, I thought, `Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know she was coming back.’ So it was a surprise. But obviously she’s been through a lot, so it’s awesome she’s back on the court,” said Riske, who is ranked 46th.
“I thought she did a heck of a job. She was running well. She was hitting solid shots. I mean, I’m sure as time goes on, she’s only going to get closer to where she was, if she’s not there already.”