A couple of years ago, Sloane Stephens was so disillusioned with tennis that she considered giving up the sport. Six weeks ago, she was ranked outside the top 900, taking her first tentative steps back after 11 months out with a foot injury that required two sets of surgery.
At the US Open on Saturday, the 24-year-old American became a Grand Slam champion and on the evidence of the past two weeks, it is unlikely to be her only one.
After a superb women’s competition, filled with close matches and big storylines, the final was something of an anticlimax in terms of the score, as Stephens beat her friend and another rising American, Madison Keys 6-3, 6-0 in just an hour on Arthur Ashe Stadium Court.
Keys, sporting heavy strapping on her right thigh, struggled to produce her best and was guilty of making too many unforced errors, perhaps the nerves of the occasion getting in the way of her playing as she had done on the way to her first final. But Stephens, as good an athlete is there is in the sport, soaked up all Keys’ power, played smart tennis throughout and barely put a foot wrong.
It was as an assured debut Grand Slam final showing as any in recent memory and Stephens crowned a remarkable comeback with a fully deserved victory.
“I should just retire now,” Stephens said, as she accepted her prize money of $3.7 million, a cheque that made her gasp. “I told Maddy that I'm never going to be able to top this. Talk about a comeback. It's incredible. I had surgery January 23 and if somebody told me then I'd win the US Open, it’s impossible, I would say, it’s absolutely impossible.”
A hugely talented junior and a gifted athlete, Stephens has suffered more than her share of injuries but her comeback has been remarkable, by anyone’s standards.
Having returned at Wimbledon, she won her first match for 13 months in Toronto, going on to reach the semi-finals, and then repeated the feat in Cincinnati. Few expected her to go too far at the US Open but she has competed brilliantly throughout and against Keys, she was rock solid. After she clinched victory, she headed into the stands to celebrate with her family.
“We’ve been on such a journey together, my Mum’s is incredible,” she said. “I think parents don’t get enough credit. When I was 11, my Mum took me to a tennis academy and some director told my Mum that I would be lucky if I was a Division 2 player; I got a scholarship. You could be me some day and parents, if your kid wants to do something, always support them.”
In the midst of her celebrations, Stephens still had the composure and compassion to go to sit next to Keys as she sat courtside, letting her disappointment settle in. It was a touching moment between two friends on the biggest stage they could ever have imagined competing in. “Maddy’s one of my best friends on Tour, if not my best friend on Tour,” Stephens said.
“To play her here, honestly I wouldn’t have wanted to play anyone else. For us both to be here, it’s such a special moment. I told her I wish it could be a draw. I think if it had been the other way round, she would do the same for me. To stand here with me today is incredible.”
Keys had demolished Coco Vandeweghe in the semi-finals but looked nervous early on, over-hitting. The winners that were abundant in the semis became errors against the agile defence of Stephens, who forced her to overhit with the quality of her movement. It was a disappointing end to a great tournament for Keys but when the dust settles, she will remember the best tournament of her career to date.
“Obviously I didn’t play my best tennis today and was very disappointed, but Sloane being the great friend she was, was very supportive and if there’s someone I had to lose today, I’m glad it’s her,” Keys said.
“I have had a very interesting year, really rough start, surgery in the middle of it…my Mum’s helped me through everything. If you told me two months ago I’d be holding a finalist trophy for the US Open, I’d be really happy and proud of myself.”
For the record, Stephens is only the fifth unseeded woman to win a Grand Slam title in the open era and she is the first American not called Williams to win a Grand Slam since Jennifer Capriati won the Australian Open in 2002. She is the fourth different champion in four slams and with years on their side, perhaps this will be the start of a rivalry toward the top of the women’s game.
Murray and Hingis do the double
Two tournaments together and now Jamie Murray and Martina Hingis have two Grand Slam titles together. The Wimbledon champions added the US Open mixed doubles title to their trophy cabinets on Saturday after they edged out Hao-Ching Chan of Taipei and Michael Venus of New Zealand 6-1, 4-6, 10-8.
The win takes Murray’s Grand Slam tally to five while former women’s No.1 Hingis probably needs some extra room to place her trophy, having clinched Grand Slam title No.24 and her ninth since 2015.
“We played a great tiebreak,” said Murray, who revealed that his brother Andy had texted his congratulations. “The crowd was really into it. There was a lot of noise, some crazy rallies going on. For us, it's so much fun to go there and play and play in a huge stadium, a lot of people coming out to watch. They are there four hours before the women's singles final, so they are there because they want to come and watch us play. Makes us want to put on a good show.”
Murray said he was loving playing with Hingis and all being well, the pair will play together at the Australian Open. “It's been a lot of fun for me. Martina’s such a great player,” he said. “She’s a huge champion of the game. It's been a lot of fun.”
Hewett squeezes into wheelchair final
If the mixed final was close, the men’s wheelchair singles semi-final between doubles partners Gordon Reid and Alfie Hewett was even closer. The final set alone lasted 74 minutes as Englishman Hewett finally squeezed out Scotland’s Reid 7-5, 5-7, 7-6 (10-8) after three hours, two minutes, both men having match points.
"I'm a bit speechless right now. It was an amazing match," Hewett said. "It was absolutely exhausting."
The pair were back on court later in the day for the doubles final, beating top seeds Stephane Houdet and Nicolas Peifer of France 7-5, 6-4 to win the title.