Six months before the start of the 2017 US Open, Sloane Stephens couldn’t walk. On the tournament’s final Saturday, she brought 23,000 people to their feet.
Playing near-flawless tennis in her first Grand Slam final, Stephens committed just six unforced errors to defeat Madison Keys, 6-3, 6-0, before a capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd in the first all-American US Open final since Williams vs. Williams in 2002.
In a women’s draw littered with upsets – only two Top 10 seeds reached the quarterfinals and no Top 8 seeds advanced to the semis – it seemed appropriate that the unseeded Stephens emerged as the champion, joining 2009 Open winner Kim Clijsters as the only unseeded women to accomplish that feat in the Open era.
That she did so at Keys’ expense was heartbreaking for the U.S. tennis fans in attendance, who seemed torn between the two young Americans. But this day was all about Stephens, the charismatic, lightning-quick baseliner who missed last year’s US Open with a foot injury that required surgery and forced her off the tour for 11 months.
The match itself was a master class in patience and consistency from a 24-year-old who admitted she is still learning to exercise both. She routinely baited her big-hitting friend and rival into repeated errors; Keys finished with 30 unforced in all, accounting for half the points Stephens won.
Appropriately enough, the match ended on a quintessential Stephens point. She returned serve and then settled in at the baseline, striking the ball firmly off both wings, deflecting a mammoth Keys’ forehand, and on the 11th shot, watching, ready for one more, as Keys’ final forehand found the net. It was over. Stephens was the champion, a first-time champion – and a most deserving one at that.