By Mary Cunningham
Sloane Stephens, who started this summer ranked 957th in the world, won the U.S. Open yesterday, making her the first American woman not named Venus or Serena to win since 2002.
She hit the ball deep and often down the middle, and made her friend and opponent, Madison Keys, have to work for every point. Keys, 22 years old, was too tight to deliver. This was the first Grand Slam final for both women, and Stephens’s game—precision, hustle and few mistakes—proved superior.
Stephens, 24 years old, beat Keys in straight sets, 6-3, 6-0. This was the first all-American women’s final at the Open since Venus and Serena Williams played each other in 2002.
Stephens started steady from the beginning and had no problem with Keys’s power. She broke Keys’s serve twice in the first set. In the second set, she remained steady while Keys, nervous and dejected, collapsed.
“I was obviously nervous all morning,” Keys said. “Sloane’s a tough opponent to play when, you know, you’re not making a lot of balls.”
Early in the second set, Stephens whipped a forehand passing shot cross court as Keys ran to the net. She never looked back. She held her serve the entire match, even a game late in the second set when she trailed 0-40. By the middle of the second set Keys, who was clearly frustrated, kicked her leg forward after she lost her serve again. She trailed 5-0 in the second set when she again failed to hold her serve.
The match was the last of an impressive tournament by American women. Four of them—Keys, Stephens, Venus Williams and CoCo Vandeweghe—reached the semifinal round. The last time an American women’s foursome achieved that in a major was in 1985.
After the match, Stephens sat with Keys and consoled her. The two have long been close, and Keys was clearly broken up emotionally after her defeat. She said no matter what, she was proud of Stephens—especially for the way she responded to an operation on her foot that left her unable to walk.
“Not being on the tennis court for so long really helped her realize how much she loves the game,” Keys said. “I’m really happy for her.”
Both Keys and Stephens struggled this season with injuries. Keys, who missed the Australian Open because of wrist surgery, didn’t get past the second round at Wimbledon and the French Open. Stephens had to miss the Australian Open and French Open as her injured foot recovered. She lost in the first round of Wimbledon. Still, that was better than not playing at all because of her foot.
“I was nonweight-bearing for 16 weeks, so I couldn’t walk, put no pressure on my foot,” Stephens said. “I had on a peg leg, on crutches.” In April, she starting hitting tennis balls while sitting in a chair. Not until May did she stand up to have more normal rallies, she said.
Stephens’s most impressive performance of the week came in the semifinals, when she beat Venus Williams in three sets. The third set was a beauty, with offense from Williams and defense from Stephens. Her passing shot late in the match helped her take a lead for good.
This was far and away Stephens’s best performance at the U.S. Open. Before this year, her best finish at the Open came in the fourth round. At her last Open, in 2015, she lost in the first round. She didn’t look at this year’s Open as a possible title.
“When I had surgery, I was not thinking that I would be anywhere near a U.S. Open title,” she said. “Nor did I think I was going to be anywhere near the top 100.”
What’s next in tennis for Stephens? She’s too shocked—and too happy—to say for sure. Not long ago she was ranked No. 934. Now she’ll be ranked inside the Top 20. Her prize money from the win: $3.7 million.
“I didn’t know it was that much money,” Stephens said. “Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will.”