The 2017 US Open women’s final may not go down in history as an epic battle, but the tournament will always be remembered for the tremendous journeys of the two finalists, who recovered from surgeries underwent earlier this season only to make it all the way to the title match in New York.
Sloane Stephens, who was in a walking boot up until the end of April and was ranked 957 in the world just six weeks ago, delivered a flawless display to claim a 6-3, 6-0 victory over Madison Keys, who herself had wrist surgery three months ago.
The two Americans are best friends and while the final was a one-sided affair, the message of strength, respect, friendship and support they sent out to the world was a real masterpiece.
After wrapping up her final victory in just 60 minutes to capture her maiden Grand Slam title, Stephens hugged a weeping Keys at the net, consoling her, then walked over to her chair and sat next to her while they prepared the court for the trophy ceremony.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 9, 2017
“Maddie’s one of my bestest friends on tour, if not my best friend on tour. 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 wish there could be a draw because I wish we could have both won,” said the 24-year-old Stephens, who has rocketed up the rankings from 957 at the start of August, to No17 when the new standings are released on Monday.
“But I think that if it was the other way around that she would do the same for me and I’m going to support her no matter what and I know she’s going to support me no matter what. So to stand with her here today is incredible and that’s what real friendship is.”
Although both players were contesting their first Grand Slam final, it was Stephens who looked like the veteran, producing a calm and collected performance, that saw her commit just six unforced errors compared to Keys’ 17.
She saved all three break points she faced and countered Keys’ sheer power with great control and poise.
Stephens has appeared like this throughout the past six weeks in which she made the semis in Toronto and Cincinnati, before winning the US Open on Saturday.
She had surgery on her left foot in January and played her first match in 11 months at Wimbledon in June.
You would run out of adjectives to describe her unthinkable comeback.
“It’s incredible. I honestly, I had surgery January 23rd and if someone told me then that I’d win the US Open, it’s impossible I would say, it’s absolutely impossible,” said Stephens on court.
“My journey to get here, coming back, just being able to keep it all together and have such a great team behind me. This journey has been incredible and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Paying tribute to her team and mother, Sybil Smith, Stephens added: “We’ve been on such a journey together. 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 and 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 every supports their child – you could be me someday so parents never give up on your kids, if they want to do something, always encourage them.”
Keys endured her own comeback this year having gone through two wrist surgeries, one at the end of last season, and one in June. The 22-year-old power-hitter was plagued by errors in her match on Saturday but showed true grace in the way she paid tribute to her opponent and friend.
“Sloane is truly one of my favourite 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 was, was very supportive and if there’s something I have to lose today, I’m glad it’s her,” said Keys.
“I have had a very interesting year. Really rough start, surgery in the middle and the whole time I had this amazing team behind me, they have helped me get here. My mom is up there and she’s helped me through everything. If you told me two months ago I’ll be holding the finalist’s trophy for the US Open I’d be really happy and proud of myself.”
It was only the seventh time in the Open era that two first-time Grand Slam finalists faced off in a major title match.
Ranked 83 in the world, Stephens is the second-lowest ranked player to reach a Grand Slam final after No. 111 Chris O’Neil at the 1978 Australian Open (this does not include unranked players).
“I should just retire now, I told Maddie I’m never going to be able to top this,” Stephens joked during the trophy ceremony. “Talk about a comeback! Honestly I don’t know what to say. I just know that after I had surgery it was super hard to get back. I just tried to keep the best attitude, I had the best team. I mean… things just had to come together and the last six weeks, five weeks, they really have.
“I could just say thank you to my village, my team that stuck with me and even in the toughest times and on my worst days, I was going crazy and you guys stuck with me, I think this one is for all of us really.”
Rafael Nadal and Kevin Anderson will face-off in the US Open final on Sunday, which will give the former a chance to claim a third New York crown and 16th Grand Slam trophy while the latter will be going for his first major title.
It will be their fifth meeting overall, and just second at a Slam, with Nadal owning a clean 4-0 record lead over the tall South African, who has only ever mustered to win one set over the Spanish star.
Nadal is contesting his 23rd Grand Slam final while Anderson is experiencing his first.
Here’s a closer look at this final match of the Grand Slam season.
It’s no secret that Anderson is a power-hitter but to get a better idea of how aggressive he’s been this tournament, just check out his winner count. In his last three matches alone, the South African fired a combined 179 winners across 12 sets played. That’s an average of approximately 15 winners per set.
He is of course the ace leader of the tournament, with a total of 114 aces, and has won an average of 83 per cent of the points on his first serve throughout the event.
Anderson has dropped serve just five times this fortnight and he actually held serve in his first 55 service games this US Open until he finally faltered.
While Nadal of course does not get as many free points with his serve the way Anderson does, the Spaniard’s service has been a real asset this fortnight as he won an average of 76 per cent of the points on his first serve, and, more impressively, 64 per cent of the points on his second serve, which is the second-highest percentage of the tournament in that category.
The two-time US Open champion dropped serve seven times in 21 sets contested so far in New York.
— Kelsey Anderson (@KelseyOAnderson) September 9, 2017
The theme this US Open, and probably this year, has been the stunning success of players who have returned from lengthy injury-enforced breaks, many of which included surgeries.
From US Open finalists Madison Keys (two wrist surgeries) and Sloane Stephens (foot surgery), to semi-finalist Juan Martin del Potro (three wrist surgeries), to Nadal, who has battled physical problems throughout his whole career, this fortnight has been a bundle of inspiration for anyone injured out there (we’re not forgetting Petra Kvitova and Kaia Kanepi of course).
Anderson’s own comeback tale is equally impressive. The 31-year-old fought past ankle, knee and shoulder issues last season then had to skip this year’s Australian Open with a hip injury. He slipped to No. 80 in the world in January – his lowest ranking in seven years – but now has a chance to re-enter the top-10 if he wins the title on Sunday.
Nadal has saved 18 out of 25 break points (72%) faced this fortnight while Anderson saved 17/22 (77%). Their break point conversion rate is very similar with Nadal winning 40% of the break point opportunities he created and Anderson winning 39% of his. In a match-up where serve will be key, it will be interesting to see who will be more clutch – the 23-time Slam finalist or the debutant?
Anderson emerged from the bottom half of the draw, which was the softer side in the absence of Andy Murray, who was initially the No. 2 seed but withdrew a day after the draw was made leaving it lopsided and unbalanced. The early exits of Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic, Tomas Berdych and other high seeds left that bottom half wide open and a quick look at the average ranking of Anderson’s opponents – 149 compared to 68 for Nadal – will show he could have had a much tougher path under different circumstances.
Of course a ranking never tells the whole story and Anderson has had to overcome some tricky opponents like Borna Coric, Sam Querrey, Ernests Gulbis and Pablo Carreno Busta. But facing Nadal in a Slam final is a totally different ball game. Is he well-prepared for it?
3 — Nadal is one of just three men to have won a Grand Slam as a teen, in his 20s and in his 30s, along with Pete Sampras and Ken Rosewall.
3 — This is the third time in Nadal’s career that he has made three Slam finals in the same season (2010, 2011, 2017).
15 — consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals Nadal has now won.
15 — Anderson is projected to move up to No. 15 in the rankings by virtue of reaching the final. He can re-enter the top-10 and move up to No. 10 if he wins the title.
23 — Grand Slam finals Nadal has reached (15-7 win-loss so far).
32 — ranked 32nd in the world, Anderson is the lowest-ranked Grand Slam finalist since a 38th-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga reached the Australian Open final in 2008.
33 — years since a South African man last reached a Grand Slam final. Anderson is the first man from his nation to do so since Kevin Curren lost the 1984 Australian Open final to Mats Wilander.
52 — years since a South African man last reached the US Open final – that was Cliff Drysdale in 1965.
203 — cm, Anderson’s height (6’8″). He is the tallest player to reach a Grand Slam singles final.
Rafael Nadal moved one win away from a third US Open title and 16th Grand Slam crown Friday when he defeated weary Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2.
The 31-year-old Spaniard, the 2010 and 2013 champion in New York, will be playing in his 23rd Slam final and third this year, looking to add the US title to his record 10th French Open.
In Sunday’s final, the world number one will face 32nd-ranked Kevin Anderson, the first South African in the championship match in 52 years.
Anderson reached his maiden final at the majors by beating 12th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4.
For 2009 champion Del Potro, Friday’s match was one too many as the physical and emotional toll of seeing off Roger Federer in four sets in the previous round left him spent.
“I have had an amazing season after some tough moments with injuries in recent years,” said Nadal, who started 2017 by finishing runner-up to Federer in Australia.
“It’s a very emotional year for me. I am in the final again and get the chance to fight for another title which is very important.”
Nadal said the key to Friday’s win was a change of tactics after the first set.
“I played too much to his backhand and I felt he was waiting for me there,” said Nadal after his 15th successive Grand Slam semi-final win.
“I changed it and it worked very well. I made him move more and make it all more unpredictable.”
Nadal finished with 45 winners and 20 unforced errors to Del Potro’s 23 and 40.
Despite a 4-0 winning record over Anderson, Nadal said he will not underestimate his opponent on Sunday.
— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) September 9, 2017
“He is a very dangerous player with a big serve and plays very well on this surface. I have known him since we were 12.
“He’s had many injuries but the way he has come back is a great example to the kids.”
Del Potro, who saved two match points against Dominic Thiem in a last-16 tie from which he almost retired with illness, gained the only break of the first set in the fifth game off a fortunate net cord.
However, few would begrudge Del Potro a little luck after he was pushed to the brink of retirement by four wrist surgeries that saw his ranking slip as low as 1,045 and forced him to miss 10 Grand Slam tournaments.
Nadal hit back with venom, gathering three breaks to take the second set in just 26 minutes as the Argentine suffered a power cut of staggering proportions.
The Spaniard, watched by Tiger Woods in his player’s box, then raced into a 3-0 lead in the third before Del Potro stopped the rot, having lost nine games in succession.
The Argentine saved two set points in the eighth game but Nadal soon wrapped it up at the next time of asking, pushing his opponent into desperate defense before the delivering the killer blow into an open court.
Nadal, beaten by Del Potro at the same stage in 2009, tightened the noose with two breaks for 4-1 and easy hold for 5-1.
It was all over in the eighth game when Nadal buried unleashed a backhand winner.
“I’m angry to lose a chance like this, but maybe tomorrow I will be calm and see how big the tournament was for me,” said Del Potro.
Anderson, 31, will attempt to become his country’s first Slam champion since Johan Kriek at the 1981 Australian Open.
Cliff Drysdale was the last South African man in the US final in 1965 but he was defeated by Manuel Santana.
“It has been a long road. This means the world to me,” said Anderson, whose career was at a crossroads in January when hip problems forced him out of the Australian Open and his ranking slumped to 80.
“This is why we work so hard. I was pretty nervous with it being the first time on the sport’s most famous stage.”
Carreno Busta, also playing in his first semi-final at the Slams, had not dropped a set at the tournament, helped by playing four qualifiers, and he was a set to the good on Friday, breaking in the seventh game.
The Spaniard had pocketed the opener hitting just two winners and only one unforced error.
But 6ft 8in (2.03m) Anderson eventually imposed himself much to the approval of watching Hollywood star Robert Redford and Microsoft founder Bill Gates
Anderson finished the tie with a power-packed 22 aces and 58 winners.