After it was all over — after Sloane Stephens won her first U.S. Open title by destroying her close friend Madison Keys, 6-3, 6-0, Saturday — the two walked to the net and collapsed into each other’s arms.
In an embrace that seemed to last as long as the match’s second set, the American tennis players made a feel-good statement about friendship, competition and the healthy future of women’s tennis in this country.
Stephens, ranked 957th last month, became the first American woman not named Serena or Venus Williams to win a Grand Slam final since Jennifer Capriati won in Australia in 2002. Stephens also joins an esteemed list of African-American winners of the U.S. Open tournament, which began with Althea Gibson 60 years ago.
“I should just retire now,” Stephens joked during the awards ceremony. “I told Maddie I’m never going to be able to top this. I mean, talk about a comeback.”
Stephens, 24, was unseeded in the tournament, primarily because she had missed 11 months recovering from foot surgery. Since coming back in July, she has won a total of 15 matches in three tournaments with all of her wins coming against top 50 players.
Those wins include outlasting Venus Williams in three sets in a semifinal here for the right to play Keys, the No. 15th seed who once had been tabbed by Serena Williams as the future of the game. It took Stephens just 61 minutes to methodically dispatch Keys and win her first Grand Slam tournament.
Keys, 22, also playing in her first Grand Slam final, looked overwhelmed by the magnitude of the match.
Stephens had just six unforced errors, while Keys had 30. After winning eight straight games to end the match, Stephens covered her eyes in disbelief, walked over and looked at her family in the stands and then headed to the net to meet her friend.
“I told her I wish there could have been a draw because I wish we would have both won,” Stephens said. “My journey’s been incredible and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Said Keys, who had two wrist surgeries in the past year: “Sloane is truly one of my favorite people and to get to play her was really special. Obviously I didn’t play my best tennis today and was disappointed. But Sloane, being the great friend that she is, was very supportive. And if there’s someone I have to lose to today, I’m glad it’s her.”
It was a good moment for U.S. tennis fans, who got a glimpse of what a post-Williams world might look like. Yes, it appears the U.S. game will survive the sisters’ eventual retirement. Fourteen Americans are now ranked in the top 100, and all four semifinalists at the U.S. Open were American.
Stephens, who first burst into the international spotlight in 2013 when she beat Serena Williams to reach the semifinals of the Australian Open, might be the most interesting of them all.
Stephen’s mother is Sybil Smith, who swam at Boston University and was the first African-American swimmer to be recognized as a first-team All-American. Her father is John Stephens, a former NFL running back with the New England Patriots who died in a car accident in 2009.
One of the biggest names in the history of tennis was feeling pretty good about the state of the U.S. women’s game. Billie Jean King, who was being honored for the 50th anniversary of her wining the open, spoke to the crowd before the game along with Emma Stone, who is playing her in an upcoming movie called “Battle of the Sexes.” King was one of the original nine women players who advocated for and won equal pay for women in the U.S. Open.
“Our dream is now being lived by these two young people,” King told the crowd. “We, the originals, are so happy when women do well. And men do well.”
Stephens did well to the tune of $3.7 million, the largest payout to a winner at the U.S. Open. In the most newbie of ways, she endeared herself to the crowd when she looked a the check and could be heard saying, “Wow, That’s a lot of money.”
One gets the feeling it won’t be her last big check.