Sloane Stephens, of the United States, waves to the crowd...

Sloane Stephens, of the United States, waves to the crowd after defeating Madison Keys, of the United States, during the first round of the US Open tennis championships, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Credit: AP/Seth Wenig

"I think being an American playing at the U.S. Open is incredible," said Sloane Stephens after she won her opening match against Madison Keys on Arthur Ashe Stadium. "I think this atmosphere, out of all the slams, is pretty unmatched. I think this is like the peak of the peak. But yeah, like just having these fans out and the energy, the atmosphere, it brings a lot back to tennis. Even though we've had fans at some places, like obviously nothing compares to playing in New York."

And nothing compares with having the fans back in the stands at the U.S. Open. They flocked to the National Tennis Center on Monday, at least those who could prove they had received at least one COVID-19 vaccination, and they put a shot of energy back into the tournament that was played without fans last year. The hollow sounds of last September were replaced with the hearty cacophony of New York fans enjoying the tennis and themselves.

With the crowd lifting both their spirits, Stephens prevailed 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (7) in a rematch of the 2017 Open final.

American Coco Gauff drew huge support from the crowd at Armstrong Stadium to beat Magda Linette, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4. "They really, really helped me," Gauff said. "[They] almost brought me to tears."

Back in 2017 Stephens beat Keys in a runaway for her only Grand Slam title. Both players were highly ranked at the time, both expecting to compete for Slam titles.

Four years later, they just aren't the same. Stephens is No. 66 in the world, Keys 42. It’s been a long time since they competed for any title.

"It seems like it was a hundred years ago, not just four," Keys said. "Yeah, the world is obviously a completely different place now as far as regular life goes. But then also with tennis, a lot has changed. I think Sloane and I have had some massive ups since then and we have also had some downs, but I think today's match showed we still both really have a high level of tennis left."

Stephens found it disappointing that she had to face her best friend on tour in the first round.

"We were both looking to, you know, like start winning some matches and getting back to where we were," Stephens said. "It's just unfortunate we both had to play each other here because I felt like we were both on the upswing a little bit, both of where we are, both of us, like the only place to really go is up.

"I feel like once we kind of connect our games and like things kind of fall back into place we'll be where we want to be. But obviously that gets halted when you play each other in the first round of the tournament so that kind of sucks. I still think both of us are headed in the right direction."

Keys echoed the disappointment but wasn’t entirely upset with the way she played.

"I actually think it's the best I have played in a while, but I also think it's the best she's played in a while. I left it all out there," Keys said. "I did what I could, but it wasn't good enough. There is just a lot that I can actually take from the match and learn from, but also be really proud of for the rest of the season."

And Stephens, like all the surviving competitors, can count on the returning New York fans for support once again.

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