US Open 2017: America celebrates twice over, as Sloane Stephens beats Madison Keys in ‘the friendly game’

World No83 Sloane Stephens beats fellow American and 13th seed Madison Keys in straight sets in the US Open final

The US Open did not have everyone on side when it set out its stall two weeks ago.

On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori were missing from the draw with injury. Former champion Marin Cilic lost in Round 2, and five-time champion Roger Federer fell in New York for the second time to 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro.

On the women’s side, the most prolific women’s Major champion of the Open era, six-time winner Serena Williams, missed the tournament for just the third time in 20 years. She gave birth to her first child just as her elder sister, two-time champion Venus, was making an historic run to the semi-finals—20 years after her debut runner-up appearance.

Victoria Azarenka, twice a finalist, had to pull out for personal reasons, and then defending champion Angelique Kerber lost in the first round. The woman who had worked all summer to become No1, Simona Halep, did the same, while the wild card who beat her, former champion Maria Sharapova, lost in Round 4.

But a theme was developing, one that would lift the spirits of a home nation even if things had not followed the well-worn Major script.

Come the final four women, and the line-up was replete with American players for the first time since 1981—the famed Navratilova/Evert era.

And it had been a long time since the US title itself had been contested by two American women. Even the remarkable Williams sisters had not met in a title bout in New York since 2002.

And sewn into this all-American storyline were some golden threads, too. Serena may be otherwise engaged, but Venus, the oldest woman in the draw at 37, had already reached two Major finals this year, and she was aiming for a third. Her wonderful three-set triumph over fellow Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova lifted her to favourite status. But she was edged out of the final by a woman 13 years her junior, and Venus’s biggest fan, Sloane Stephens.

In the other semi, 22-year-old Madison Keys was reminding everyone of her huge talent almost three years after making the semis at the Australian Open while still a teenager.

But what was most remarkable about the last two standing was how much they had in common, how many difficulties they had overcome this year—and that these best friends had only played each other once before, two and a half years ago.

Stephens too had reached the Australian semis just before her 20th birthday, and like Keys, went on to reach the quarters at Wimbledon.

But both arrived here with limited expectations, both recovering from surgery.

Keys had wrist surgery in March (her second time under the knife), and Stephens had foot surgery in January. Both had a 14-5 win-loss record at the US Open, and there was barely any difference in their overall Major tallies either, with 17 and 14 wins this year respectively.

On their comebacks from surgery, Keys won in Stanford, Stephens made the semis in both Toronto and Cincinnati, and both reached the final here via some impressive competition. Keys took out No17 seed Elena Vesnina, No4 seed Elina Svitolina and No20 seed Coco Vandeweghe. Stephens beat No30 Julia Goerges, No16 Anastasija Sevastova and No9 Williams.

So it promised much, and it all started so well, with four good service games, 2-2. But then Stephens began to impose herself on Keys, worked two break points in the fifth game, and Keys fired a forehand long. Stephens consolidated her break and then broke again as Keys hit yet another error, this time off the backhand—her 17th of the set. So in the space of half an hour, Stephens was a set up, 6-3, and she would then race through the second.

Stephens worked a 0-40 advantage, and pulled off a great angled forehand pass as Keys attempted to change things up by coming forward. Keys had been forced more and more to play behind the baseline, where she could not take advantage of her big driving forehands. Her heavily taped right thigh hinted at an underlying inhibition: pushing off hard on that leg was tougher than usual, and she made uncharacteristic errors, long and wide.

And that served only to boost the confidence and focus of Stephens, who gripped the baseline like glue, matching her friend shot for shot, punishing her for anything short, thumping passes down the backhand line, and even coming forward for a few volley finishes.

Stephens broke again in the fourth courtesy of a Keys double fault, and served for 5-0. Could Keys get on the board? She came desperately close, fought off a break point, kept up the effort through three deuces, but in the end, Stephens had a firm grip, and forced one last error—Keys’ 30th of the match—and she was a Major champion for the first time after just an hour.

If the tennis itself was not the crowning glory of the women’s tournament—and there had been some superb contests from the first between Halep and Sharapova, until one of the last between Williams and Kvitova, with plenty in between—the half hour that followed more than made up for it.

Rarely has there been a more heart-felt embrace at the net, as one friend consoled the other. And rarely have two finalists on such a stage sat alongside one another, like a couple of mates gossiping in front of the TV on a Saturday night. They laughed, almost certainly sharing some jokes that they took care to hide from the cameras with their towels. It was sport and comradeship of the highest order, and a credit to the players, their families and their teams.

And all that before they took to the stage and spoke. First Keys:

“Sloane truly is one of my favourite people. Obviously I didn’t play my best tennis today, and Sloane was very supportive, and if I have to lose to someone today, I’m glad it’s her.”

Then Stephens:

“Maddy’s one of my best friends on the tour, and I wouldn’t want to have played anyone else. I said to her I wished it could have been a draw and if it was the other way round, I think she would have done the same thing. That’s what real friends should be.”

She added, with a smile that will surely light up many a Major centre court in the coming years:

“I should just reitre! I told Maddy, I’ll never be able to top this!”

She may not top it, but repeat it she almost certainly will. And Keys’ too: Her turn must be just around the corner. And to think both of them came through surgery this year to share this memorable moment.

US Open winner Sloane Stephens Photo: Screen grab
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