Sloane Stephens played a near flawless match to defeat Madison Keys and capture her first career Grand Slam title.
NEW YORK — American tennis had never had it better. All of women’s tennis, actually. From one day to the next for nearly a fortnight, a delightful game of “can you top this” occurred on the courts of the U.S. Open.
There was Maria Sharapova’s triumphant return from a doping suspension, at least for the first week. There was another fabulous run by the 37-year-old Venus Williams, all the way to the semifinals, beating the inspiring Petra Kvitova along the way before losing in three magnificent sets to Sloane Stephens, who had been ranked 957th six weeks earlier.
There was the other side of the draw, and two more Americans bubbling to the top, youngsters named Madison Keys and Coco Vandeweghe, completing the first all-American semifinals at a women’s Grand Slam event in 32 years.
Whatever awaited in Saturday’s women’s final had to be terrific, didn’t it, if only to serve as a fitting coda to the 2017 Grand Slam season?
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But then, unfortunately, it wasn’t. It wasn’t good at all. Stephens, 24, who had been out for 11 months with a stress fracture in her left leg, dominated the overly nervous Keys, 22, in just 61 minutes 6-3, 6-0.
What a disappointment this was. This wasn’t the way these two stupendous weeks were supposed to end. The news media interviews Saturday afternoon with Billie Jean King and Emma Stone for the upcoming movie Battle of the Sexes lasted longer than the match.
But then, something extraordinary happened. It turns out the match wasn’t the end of this tournament. There was something more coming, something infinitely more interesting and uplifting.
It began when Keys all but melted into Stephens’ arms at the net, the two dear friends holding onto each other for what seemed an eternity so Stephens could console her friend, who was in tears.
A minute or two later, while waiting on preparations for the awards ceremony, Stephens decided to kill time by joining Keys in a chair on her side of the net so they could talk. This wasn’t unprecedented, but it was lovely nonetheless.
“We have known each other for so long and we have been through so much that we wanted to share that moment with each other,” Keys said later. “To be able to share my first Slam (final) experience with a really close friend when it’s also her first Slam (final) is a really special moment. There’s no one else in the world that would have meant as much as (she) did.”
The friend-fest was just getting started.
In her on-court interview, Keys called Stephens “truly one of my favorite people. … If there’s someone I have to lose to today, I’m glad it’s her.”
Stephens returned the compliment.
“Maddie is one of my bestest friends on tour, if not my best friend on tour, and to play her here, honestly, I wouldn’t have wanted to play anyone else but for us both to be here is such a special moment. I told her I wished it could be a draw because I wish we could have both won.”
She wasn’t done yet.
“I think that if it was the other way around, she would do the same for me and I’m going to support her no matter what. I know she’s going to support me no matter what so to stand up here today with her is incredible and that’s what real friendship is.”
By now, you’re calling the kids into the room to rewind the DVR to hear this, figuring that must be it. But no. There’s more.
Stephens turned to look into the stands to find her mother, Sybil Smith, the first African-American swimmer to earn first team Division I All-American honors when she swam at Boston University in the late 1980s.
“We’ve been on such a journey together,” Stephens said. “My mom is incredible. I think parents don’t get enough credit. When I was 11 years old, my mom took me to a tennis academy. One of the directors there told my mom that I’d be lucky if I was a Division II player and I got a scholarship.
“I think any parent that ever supports their child – you could be me one day, so parents, never give up on your kids. If they want to do something, always encourage them.”
Moments later, Stephens was presented with the winner’s check of $3.7 million.
“What?” Stephens said. “Oh my God.”
Keys chimed right in. “I’ll hold it for her.”
There was laughter all around.
“I should just retire now,” Stephens said. “I told Maddie I’m never going to be able to top this.”
After witnessing all that unbridled sportsmanship and overwhelming kindness, I think we all could say the same thing.
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