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.”