- Just 11 months ago, Sloane Stephens could barely walk. Now, after an incredible resurgence and a resounding win over compatriot Madison Keys in the U.S. Open final, she's hoisting her first Grand Slam trophy. But her victory is also a sign of another revival.
NEW YORK – There will never be another Serena Williams. Nor another Venus Williams, for that matter. The next generation of U.S. women’s tennis players—and feel free to pick your 10 best under 30 years old—are not combining for 30 Grand Slam singles titles, 121 WTA titles and 173 finals appearances.
(Yes, we know: This is not exactly going out on a limb.)
But Saturday represented something significant for American tennis, the conclusion of a tournament in which the U.S. women grabbed America’s Grand Slam by the throat and owned it. Sure, the U.S. Open final between Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys—the first All American women’s final since Serena beat Venus in 2002—was not a Picasso. Stephens pulverized Keys 6-3, 6-0 in 61 minutes, barely enough time for Emma Stone, Uzo Aduba, James Spader, and the rest of the boldfaced names in attendance to munch down any $20.25 lobster rolls. The unforced errors (Keys 30, Stephens 6) were a bigger story than the winners (Keys 18, Stephens 10). But that Stephens, 24, and Keys 22, were in a U.S. Open final is significant. This looks like the beginning of something big for both, and for American tennis.
“I think when anyone has a Grand Slam champion in front of their name, it changes things a little bit,” Stephens said. “So I don't know if I have arrived or already arrived, been arrived, I don't know. But I do know I'm a U.S. Open champion. So whatever that means to you.”
It has been some kind of late summer revival for Stephens, who reached a low of No. 957 (this is not a misprint) at the end of July heading into the summer hardcourt season. That was a result of her returning at this year’s Wimbledon for her first tournament in 11 months following surgery to alleviate a fracture in her left navicular, a bone at the top of the foot near the ankle. She said she was non-weight-bearing for 16 weeks. “I couldn't walk, put pressure on my foot.” Stephens said. “I had on a peg leg, on crutches. There is no positive to not being able to walk and not being on one leg. That's not fun for anyone.”
When she finally got back on the court, she relished it. In her last 20 matches, Stephens has won 15 times. Her ranking rose to No. 83 prior to the start of the Open but that still makes her the lowest-ranked player in history to win a Grand Slam title. (Two players who were unranked at the time have won major finals— Evonne Goolagong at the 1977 Australian Open and Kim Clijsters at the 2009 U.S. Open). On Monday, Stephens will be back in the Top 25 at No. 17. Expect her to stay in the Top 20 (barring injury) for some time.
“Serena hasn't even officially announced the birth of her baby yet, but posted comments about Maddy and Sloane,” said Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo. “And I'm with her. Sloane and Madison are tremendous talents, and they deserve to be playing for the championship. The Williams sisters will continue to be a big story, as will Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka and everyone else. But these two aren't outliers; they're growing into their greatness.”
In her most tense moments of this year’s U.S. Open—the third sets against No. 9 Venus Williams in the semifinals and No. 16 Anastasija Sevastova in the quarters—Stephens was aggressive and steely, unafraid to hit big shots, unafraid to lose. She played that way against Keys, too, even though she admitted was very nervous walking on the court. Stephens broke Keys in the fifth game of the opening set and rolled from there in 30 minutes. Another break came in second game of the second set and then again in the fourth. The most impressive moment of the match actually came with Stephens leading 6-3, 4-0. Keys raised the level of her game and had three break points to get back some momentum back. But Stephens fought back to deuce with winners from the baseline and net. She eventually took a 5-0 lead when Keys hit another unforced error. The final game of the match was well played by both players, including a 12-point and 19-point rally on two match points saved by Keys. But at that point it was just a matter of time. At 5:22 p.m., when Keys dumped a forehand into the net, Stephens had won her first Grand Slam singles title.
“I had surgery on January 23 and if someone told me then I would win the U.S. Open, it would be impossible,” Stephens said.
Much was written this week about the friendship between Keys and Stephens. The two had a long and lovely embrace at the net after match point. In the press room afterward, Keys could not have more gracious in defeat, despite feeling awful about her play and admitting she did not handle her nerves well. “To be able to share my first Slam experience with a really close friend when it's also her first Slam is a really special moment,” Keys said. “There's no one else in the world that would have meant as much as it did.”
Asked if she would go to a celebration for Stephens, Keys said she had been invited and was going. “She can buy me drinks—all of the drinks,” Keys said. “It's obviously really conflicting. I'm really sad for me, but I'm so happy for her. Like I said, I think drinks will help me through this tough time.”
When Stephens heard the amount winners receive for winning the singles draw—$3.7 million, the most ever in tennis history for a single tournament— she looked shocked. “That’s a lot of money, my God,” she said on court.
Then, in the press room, she addressed her prize money again. That was refreshing given we often don’t hear players talk about prize money publicly. “Girl, did you see that check that lady handed me?” Stephens said smiling, when asked about whether this win will motivate her. “Like, yes. Man, if that doesn't make you want to play tennis, I don't know what will.”
We have entered a heady time for American women’s tennis. Venus will be ranked in the Top 5 for the first time since January 1, 2011. Keys is at No. 12. Fellow semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe will rise to a career-best No 16, and Stephens is at No. 17. And Serena (No. 22) says she is coming back in 2018, likely to defend her title at the 2018 Australian Open.
Said Keys, with deadly accuracy: “I think American tennis is in a really good place right now.”
She’s right. Look out, world.
Highlights from the U.S. Open final