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Sloane Stephens always had the game, but it was her heart we worried for

The newest US Open champion came roaring back from not just a horrific physical injury but maybe from an emotional one too

Jan. 23, 2013 — Sloane Stephens defeats Serena Williams 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.

Jan. 24, 2013 — Williams tweets a picture of her injured ankle, which looks as if her foot is trying to swallow a cantaloupe.

Jan. 25, 2013 — As the media touts Stephens as the next great American champion, Williams tweets, “I made you.”

It wasn’t clear who that cryptic note was directed at. But prior to that Australian Open three-setter, Stephens said she and Williams talked all of the time, even referred to her as her “bestie.” After that match, Stephens said that Williams stopped talking to her and unfollowed her on social media. Williams’ tweet may not have been a message to Stephens, but the timing of makes it difficult to assume otherwise.

This is why, while others point to the foot fracture and subsequent surgery as the injury Stephens came back from, I tend to believe her most significant injury was to her heart. There is a specific timeline to the healing of bone fractures. There is a formula for getting back into playing shape. Mending a soul? There is no timeline or formula for that. Each person is different; every circumstance is unique. Friends offer all sorts of sage advice; coaches will encourage. But at the end of the day, only the athlete knows when or if he or she has truly healed. Jana Novotna eventually recovered from a string of historic mental collapses to win Wimbledon in 1998. Nick Anderson missed four consecutive free throws in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals and was never the same.

Father Time is undefeated, but heartache has a really good win percentage as well.

Rudyard Kipling poetically advised, “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same … yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.” But when you’re 19 and winning big matches and being told you’re the next big thing and the game’s greatest befriends you, how do you not become seduced into thinking that the triumph is real and lasting? And when you feel betrayed and the inconsistencies in your results erode all of that “next great champion stuff” and you look up and you’re 24 and you haven’t made it back to a major semifinal, how do you not get crushed by disaster?

By the disappointment?

Since beating Williams in Australia in 2013, the games’ other budding stars have passed Stephens by. Garbine Muguruza, 23, has collected two majors; Monica Puig, 23, became the first athlete representing Puerto Rico to win Olympic gold; Karolina Pliskova, 25, became No. 1; Madison Keys, 22, became the first American to crack the top 10 since Williams in 1999. Four years ago, tennis expected Stephens to be the one leading this charge. But the more she became the favorite in matches, the more she disappointed.

It would take more than two years after that Australian Open semi before she would win a tournament of any sort. The fact that she won a major, this major, when the expectations of her doing so had all but evaporated, is not a coincidence. Like a 2003 Phil Mickelson or 2011 LeBron James, Stephens always had the physical talent, but it was the heart that people questioned. A heart that perhaps wasn’t ready for the target placed on the back adjacent to it. A heart that was wounded when appearances in the second week of a major were replaced with a spattering of first-round exits. A heart broken when her “bestie” unfollowed her on Twitter.

We can love her infectious smile but proceed with caution. We should accept her as genuine but not be enamored with emotional hugs at the net. We can appreciate the gesture of sitting next to her friend Keys after the match without losing sight of this one pressing question: Is she here to stay?

Was Stephens’ performance simply the result of a hot two weeks playing under the radar, or the beginning of something really special? Like Mickelson after the 2004 Masters or James in 2012? We want to know that if she finds herself on a court facing her onetime bestie, she’ll have the heart to rip Williams’ out, because we all know the other way around is not a problem.

Billie Jean King once said pressure was a privilege. The last time Stephens was bestowed this privilege, she disappointed. Now that she’s won the US Open, that privilege will undoubtedly come looking for her once again. The media handed Stephens the world in 2013 before knowing whether she was truly about that life. More than four years later, we still don’t know the answer. The foot is completely healed, but what about her heart? We won’t know the answer until she’s favored to win.

LZ Granderson is a contributor to ABC, SportsNation and a Senior writer for The Undefeated. LZ's work has been recognized by the Online News Association, Lone Star Emmy, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communication and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association which named him Journalist of the Year in 2011. Be sure to catch him on “Mornings with Keyshawn, Jorge and LZ.”