The US Open women’s draw has been a minefield of upsets and wild results and while punters made their predictions, none scripted the possibility of two Americans, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, meeting in the women’s final on Day 13 in New York.
It was Stephens who emerged the victor in what was a one-sided but significant match, 6-3 6-0.
I have no words to describe what I'm feeling, what it took to get here, just the journey I've been on. I have no words. It's incredible, I had surgery on January 23 and if someone told me then I'd win the US Open I'd say it was impossible. This journey has been incredible and I wouldn't change it for the world. Sloane Stephens
Unsurprisingly, Serena Williams was the last American to win the US Open, in 2014, and many Grand Slam titles since, but since she was out of the running to give birth to her first child, sister Venus had been the family standard bearer and looked to be a shoe-in for the final as the draw opened up.
Stephens stopped her ambitions in the semi-finals and, together with Madison Keys, has been long-heralded as the future of American women’s tennis.
Incredibly, seven months ago they were both off the tour nursing injuries and now faced off in the first all-American US Open women’s final since 2002, when Serena and Venus played each other, and the 10th all-American final here in the Open era.
Stephens couldn’t even walk in February after the 24-year-old had to miss 11 months because of a foot injury.
She returned at Wimbledon but didn’t win her first match of the season until last month in Toronto.
Keys had to miss the first two months of the season because of wrist surgery and underwent a second operation after Roland Garros in June.
Her final run was slightly more expected than Stephens’, though, as the 22-year-old made some noise by winning the US Open Series event in Stanford and making the third round in Cincinnati last month.
Stephens, however, had won their only prior head-to-head last year in Miami, 6-4 6-2, but Keys was the higher ranked, the more powerful of the two contenders and therefore marginally the favourite, seeded 15th for the title.
Stepping onto Arthur Ashe Stadium, Keys sported strapping on her right thigh that probably was a factor in her impending loss.
Both started strongly, holding their respective serves comfortably, and settling in.
Stephens earned the first break, moving ahead in the fifth game and consolidating by holding her own serve for 4-2.
Growing in confidence, Stephens’ defence was almost impenetrable as Keys attacked, but the firepower she had so ably displayed against CoCo Vandeweghe on Thursday was now more error prone.
She adjusted, moving forward to volley and hitting to a length to close the gap.
While Keys had fired 14 unforced errors, Stephens had struck none, showing her control on proceedings as she held for 5-3.
Keys responded with a fine serve and volley but flinched when pushed out wide to the backhand, clutching her thigh.
Although Stephens netted a forehand, her first unforced error of the match, she gained her first set point with impeccable length but then fluffed her forehand, her second.
A few points later, Keys drove a backhand wide to offer a second set point, and gave it up with a backhand sent long, her 17th error, after 30 minutes of play.
Stephens continued her smooth progression as she notched up the next three games and got to 15-40 on Keys’ next service game.
The 15th seed recovered two of the break points but conceded the game with a double fault.
Hitting more purposefully, Keys kept the ball in play long enough to gain three break-back points, her first of the match, but Stephens saved the first by deftly putting away a short ball, the second with a forehand winner and the third with a gentle volley after a long rally.
Keys netted her next return but struck a forehand winner to level to deuce again.
This time, Stephens approached the net and put away another volley for her second advantage and converted when Keys netted yet another return.
At 0-5 down, after 55 minutes, Keys served to stay in the match and went down 30-40 with two more errors.
A long rally ended with a netted forehand from Stephens on the match point, but she got a second chance when Keys drove wide down the line.
Fighting for all she was worth, Keys won the next long exchange with a fine winner but failed to convert with another error.
Close friends since childhood, they shared a long hug at the net after Keys netted a forehand on the third match point, and Stephens then headed into the crowd to embrace her mother.
The two finalists texted and spoke on the phone early in 2017, when both sat out the Australian Open because of operations – Keys on her left wrist, Stephens on her left foot.
“I have no words to describe what I’m feeling, what it took to get here, just the journey I’ve been on,” Stephens said on court after the win. “I have no words.
“It’s incredible, I had surgery on January 23 and if someone told me then I’d win the US Open I’d say it was impossible.
“This journey has been incredible and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
“Maddie is one of my best friends on tour, for us to be here is a special moment, I told her I wish it could have been a draw.
“I’m going to support her, no matter what. I should just retire now, I’m never going to be able to top this. I worked super hard to get back.”
She will be back in the top 25 on Monday, a remarkable leap of more than 900 ranking places in a little over a month.
As for Keys, this will not go down as a good performance for her as she effectively froze on the biggest occasion of her life and will hopefully learn from the experience.
“Sloane is truly one of my favourite people and to play against her was special,” Keys said. “I obviously didn’t play my best tennis and Sloane was very supportive.
“If I’m going to lose to anyone today, I’m glad it’s to her.”
Keys had played superbly to win her semi-final against Vandeweghe, making 24 winners to just 9 errors and moving to the top of the aces chart with a display of controlled power.
Stephens had come through a far more tense encounter against Venus Williams, with her athletic defensive skills all the more remarkable as her foot had been in a protective boot as recently as May.
It was her calm consistency that prevailed in a final that became something of a horror show for Keys.
A triumph for diversity
Arthur Ashe Stadium is 20 Years’ old and the US Open has been celebrating its diversity and tolerance on and off the court.
It was 60 years ago that Althea Gibson won her first US Open and 20 since the biggest stage in tennis was renamed to honour Arthur Ashe, the player, humanitarian and activist.
Those efforts to open up the sport were dramatically reflected in this week’s American sweep of all four spots in the women’s semi-finals, two of those players – Venus Williams and Stephens – being African-Americans and Keys bi-racial.
“I don’t think there is any other word to describe it than ‘amazing’ for me and Maddie,” said Stephens after beating Venus Williams to reach her first grand slam final.
”Obviously, Venus, we are following in her footsteps. She’s been here. She’s represented the game so well as an African-American woman.
“Maddie and I are here to join her and represent, just as well as Venus has in the past and honoured to be here.”
Before the Williams sisters there was Ashe, the winner of three Grand Slam titles, the first black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The sight of a black man on Wimbledon’s manicured lawns, French Open clay and Australian and US Open hard courts was once as jarring as it is now routine.
When the stadium was inaugurated, there was a ceremony on opening night, 25 August, 1997, when Ashe’s widow Jeanne Moutassamy-Ashe spoke and Whitney Houston sang.
On that same day, Venus Williams made her US Open debut defeating Larisa Neiland in what would be the first of many appearance on Arthur Ashe.
Two decades later the thrill of playing on Ashe has not diminished for Williams, who still tingles every time she steps onto the court.
“There are not a lot of feelings that are as awesome as playing under the lights in this awesome stadium named after an unbelievable human being.” said Williams. “He [Ashe] played during a time where he couldn’t just focus on the tennis.
“I‘m very blessed to be able to focus on my game. But he had to fight because of the colour of his skin.
“I can’t even imagine the pressure he was under during that time.”
While players like Venus and Serena Williams, Stephens and Keys provide inspiration for a new generation, Arthur Ashe Stadium also stands as a monument to grace, tolerance and excellence.
“To have this stadium named after Arthur Ashe is not insignificant,” Martin Blackman, the USTA General Manager of Development, told Reuters.
“You think about the legacy of American tennis and you think about Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe.
“I think this sport is becoming more accessible but we always need to have players at the top that kind of show it is possible.”
With Stephens and Keys headlining women’s tennis in America, the legacy is safe.