Two Great Champions, But Only One – Sloane Stephens – Got To Win The U.S. Open

WASHINGTON, September 10, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)

Five weeks ago, Sloane Stephens was ranked 957th in the world. Five weeks later, ranked No. 83, she’s the U.S. Open women’s singles champion. For sure, Stephens persevered to reach the pinnacle of playing on the biggest stage in tennis. Once she arrived, though, she played with pose and persistence. Stephens played full of desire and determination – and she never gave up.

On Saturday afternoon, before a full house of more than 22,000 tennis fans watching inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, the 24-year-old Stephens, who came into the year’s final major unseeded, beat her great friend and rival, No. 15 seed and 16th-ranked Madison Keys, 6-3, 6-0. Though it lasted just 61 minutes, it was a fitting close to one of tennis’s great comeback stories.

During this U.S. Open fortnight, it’s been well documented how both Americans had overcome injuries that required surgeries – foot surgery for Stephens and wrist surgery for Keys. Both had arrived at the final having had time to reassess their place in their chosen sport. Stephens was appearing in just her fifth tournament in the past year while Keys has played in only 10 this season.

Looking back in the record books, historically, the Stephens-Keys final was just the second time that two first-time finalists had faced off in the U.S. Open, and this matchup by ranking was the lowest for a woman’s final at the U.S. Open since computerized rankings began.

As these two athletic debutantes arrived at the net after the last ball was hit (a forehand unforced error by Keys) and the last point scored (by Stephens, who won on her third match point) – a huge moment of celebration for Stephens – both the champion and the 22-year-old runner-up Keys shared a long, beautiful hug. Stephens did her best to console Keys, who was sobbing tears at the end.

Recently, ESPN analyst and former Fed Cup captain and Olympic coach Mary Joe Fernandez spoke fondly of both Stephens and Keys, telling The New York Times that “everyone always knew they had the ability. It was just a question of where and when.”

During their oh-so-brief final, Stephens was the dominant one on the court without dominating statistically. She finished with zero service aces, didn’t commit a double fault, hit just 10 winners, and only committed six unforced errors. However, what Stephens did well was to place 75% of her first serves in play; won 24 of 33 (73%) of her first-serve points, and 7 of 11 (64%) of her second-serve points; and she was perfect at the net winning four of four opportunities. Plus, she broke Keys five times in 12 tries.

Meanwhile, Keys finished with three service aces, but won just 20 of 40 (50%) of her first-serve points, and only 6 of 15 (40%) of her second-serve points. Although she hit 18 winners, she surrendered 30 unforced errors. She was 0-for-3 in break point opportunities. Stephens outpointed Keys 60-39.

Stephens wrapped up the U.S. Open on a seven-match winning streak, and it meant Keys’s six-match winning streak was over. When the WTA rankings are updated, Stephens will move up 66 spots to No. 17 while Keys moves up four places to No. 12.

“I should just retire now,” said Stephens, during the trophy presentation, moments after she won her first of what could possibly be many U.S. Open championships to come. It was her first Grand Slam title. “I told Maddie I’m never going to be able to top this. I mean talk about a comeback!” 

En route to her crowning U.S. Open achievement – just her first title of 2017 – Stephens overcame both physical and mental stresses. “Before the injury, Sloane was nonchalant and blasé with body language,” said Chrissie Evert, the Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst, in an interview with New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey“Now she’s fighting. She’s not afraid to put herself on the line. She’s not passive. She’s being more aggressive early in the point.”

For somebody who had just lost, Keys put on a good face in accepting her runner-up trophy and prize money. “From what I’ve been through, if you told me at the start of the year I’d be a U.S. Open finalist, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she said.

Soon after, everyone’s attention focused upon Stephens, the new U.S. Open champion. “I told her I wish there could be a draw because I wish we could have both won. If it were the other way around, she would do the same for me.” 

Then, while she had the stage, Stephens took a moment to address the parents of future tennis stars, both inside Arthur Ashe Stadium and throughout the U.S., and by extension around the world. “Parents never give up on your kids. If they want to do something, always encourage them.”

Finally, during the presentation of the winner’s check, ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi said, “The winner’s check for $3.7 million. …” To which Stephens remarked: “What? That is a lot of money. Oh my god!” 

Then, without missing a beat, Keys finished her best friend’s thought: “I’ll hold it for her.”

Looking back on Saturday night, it was a one-sided final in score only. This women’s final between Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, both African-Americans, featured two great champions. While only one – Sloane Stephens – got to win, both won trophies, and each won over our hearts, too.

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.