Stephens and Keys usher in new era

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NEW YORK – When history looks back on the 2017 US Open women’s singles final, it won’t be very kind to the actual tennis that was played.

But no one inside Arthur Ashe Stadium is likely to feel they were shortchanged.

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Everything else from the moment Madison Keys’ final forehand went into the net, and her friend Sloane Stephens won the US Open, was pitch-perfect on every possible level.

It will go down as of a fine testament to perseverance through adversity, to sportsmanship, to a mother’s love an dedication, to friendship, to grace and poise under pressure – and, oh yes, to American tennis.

And, to African-Americans in tennis.

Stephens won her first Grand Slam title in just a few ticks over an hour, beating Keys 6-3, 6-0 and completing a comeback that had her outside the top 900 in the world just five weeks ago.

Her first reaction was disbelief. And then, the million-dollar, megawatt smile appeared. But there was no over-the-top celebrating, conscious as she was that her great triumph was simultaneously her good friend’s defeat.

A roller coaster women’s event

The 24-year-old was the last woman standing at the end of a US Open that, on the women’s side, was a roller coaster ride of emotions. Many top seeds went out early. The deck was being reshuffled every day.

And in the end, the last four women standing were all American, at America’s Slam.

There was 37-year-old Venus Williams, the sentimental favourite. Coco Vandeweghe, the brash one. And then there were Stephens and Keys, two players who – were it not for Venus and sister Serena – might never have dreamed they could be standing there on the final Saturday on the biggest stage in tennis.

Stephens, ranked No. 83 coming in, was the only unseeded player of the four. 

Foes briefly, friends always

The two finalists are friends; afterwards, Stephens called Keys her “best friend in tennis.”

She felt for her friend. And she knew that the 22-year-old Keys, her right thigh tightly wrapped, was not 100 per cent physically.

Stephens

When it was over, they both arrived at the net with their arms outstretched, ready to celebrate and commiserate in the same long, lengthy embrace. Keys was in tears, and Stephens was close to tears herself trying to console her friend at what was the watershed moment of her own career. 

I think at the end of a Slam, whoever is still on the court is physically going to be feeling something. But I definitely think my play today came down to nerves and all of that, and I just don’t think I handled the occasion perfectly,” Keys said. “I don’t think I was moving perfectly, but at the same time, I’m not going to take anything away from Sloane. She played really well. I don’t think I played great. I think that’s kind of a combination for a disaster for me.”

Not five minutes later, Stephens crossed the net and went over to sit with Keys to await the trophy ceremony. In no time, she had the disconsolate Keys laughing.

Stephens

“To play her here, I wouldn’t have wanted to play anyone else. I told her I wish there could be a draw, I wish we could have both won. If it were the other way around, she would have done the same for me,” Stephens said during the trophy presentation. “I’m going to support her no matter what and she’s going to support me no matter what. That’s what real friendship is.”

The “village” of Sloane Stephens

When Stephens made her way up to the player’s box, there was a long hug for Kamau Murray.

Stephens has had a few coaches in her career. And none ever seemed to fit quite right. From Nick Saviano to Thomas Hogstedt and even Paul Annacone for a brief period, there was never quite the right connection that would get the best out of a supremely talented player, but one seemed to lack the inner drive to maximize it.

Murray has been in the picture for two years, through Stephens’ 11-month absence because of a foot surgery. It seems he was able to help light the fire, stoke the belief. Being out of the game nearly a year also will give a player rather a different perspective on things.

And then, there was one final hug for mother Sybil Smith.

Stephens
Stephens is outwardly steely, so the emotional moment with her mother – the culmination of a long journey together – was as meaningful as they come.

It was then that the tears began to flow.

“We’ve been on such a journey together. My mom is incredible. When I was 11 years old my mom took me to a tennis academy and one of the director there told my mom I’d be lucky to play Division II tennis and get a scholarship,” Stephens said. “So, parents: never give up on your kids if they want to do something. Always encourage them … If someone ever tells you your kid’s not going to be good, push them to the side. Because your kid could be me one day.”

Good matchup for Stephens

Stephens’ poise in her first major final belied the nerves she felt beforehand, the nerves Keys felt beforehand. Really, the biggest thing to come out of Stephens’ summer run was her outward calm under pressure as she piled up some impressive wins.

The match against Keys was always going to be Keys’ power against the combination of qualies Stephens brings to the court: speed, consistency, the ability to build points and to know when to up the power gauge and rip one.

When she was told in her press conference just how consistent she had been, she was as shocked as she was when she saw the size of the $3.7 million check she was handed on court.

“I made six unforced errors in the whole match? Shut the front door. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before. Oh, my God. That’s a stat,” she said. “I was nervous, and before the match, I was super nervous. Once I got out there, I felt a lot better. So that was good. I just tried to stay calm and keep my composure and run every ball down. That was it. Super simple.”

Beyond tennis, an epochal moment

That the two finalists are African-American – in Keys’ case, on her father’s side – was just part of the story during that trophy ceremony.

USTA president and CEO Katrina Adams presented the trophies. A woman, and an African-American.

Stephens
“Girl, did you see that check that lady handed me? Like, yes,”

Thasunda Duckett, the CEO of Consumer Banking at JP Morgan Chase, presented the winner’s cheque for $3.7 million to Stephens. She, too, a woman and African-American.

StephensOn so many levels, this was an epochal moment. And especially so with the heavy promotion of the upcoming “Battle of the Sexes” movie over the weekend.

The personal journey of the groundbreaking Billie Jean King took place nearly 45 years ago.

The accomplished women standing there for this trophy ceremony embodied the coming to fruition of so many things King has worked so hard for her entire life.

Not just on the tennis court, but off the court as well.

Fairness. Equality. Opportunity.

Watch out, 2018

For Stephens, it now begins. As the American champion of the American Grand Slam, a beautiful woman with a great back story and a Hollywood smile, her life is going to change.

“This is a whole new level guys. Seriously,” Stephens said during a post-match interview with ESPN.

Stephens
Catastrophe narrowly avoided.

She almost dropped the trophy. She joked about being totally worried about the “boob sweat” factor, knowing that the her photo with the trophy will be blown up and hung up in a lot of places.

Does she want another one?

“Of course. Girl, did you see that check that lady handed me? Like, yes,” Stephens said, eliciting a big laugh. “Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will. Man.”

For Keys, two years younger, it’s another sort of beginning. 

She has reached her first major final. Who doubts that in the very short term, she will be holding up the big trophy?

And, in case you missed it, 13-year-old CoCo Gauff and Amanda Anisimova, who turned 16 last week, will play the junior girls’ final Sunday. They’re Americans as well.  

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