NEW YORK—Much to Madison Keys’ dismay, Saturday saw a Disney-worthy finish to Sloane Stephens’ Cinderella-story comeback. In just one hour, Stephens became the 2017 US Open champion with a dominant 6-3, 6-0 performance.
“Obviously, I didn’t play my best tennis today and it was disappointing,” Keys said. “…If there was someone I had to lose to today, I’m glad it was [Stephens].”
Reaching a major final was a long time coming for both women. They've finally lived up to all the hype that’s followed them since childhood. It has come together in spectacular fashion, with both reaching career milestones in front of a home crowd.
Keys’ form this fortnight ultimately peaked in the semifinals, where she was in the zone for her entire 6-1, 6-2 win over CoCo Vandeweghe. It was only natural to experience a dip in performance on such a stage like a US Open final. The match was a tale of errors: Stephens produced just six unforced errors while Keys piled up a staggering 30.
For Keys to beat top-billed opponents, she needs to be completely tuned in, with her unforced errors at a minimum. No one expected her to replicate her stunning semifinal performance, but no one expected her to win just three games against Stephens, either. The errors just kept spraying off Keys’ racquet—and though she committed just one double fault, it came at the worst time, handing Stephens a 4-0 lead in the second set.
The pressure was heavier on Keys’ shoulders. Her wrist-injury hiatus was tough to deal with, of course, but it was nowhere near as long as Stephens’ absence. (Keys, ranked 83rd, entered the draw with a protected ranking.) Stephens and Keys are longtime friends, and the latter should beat the former if her game comes together in the right way.
But the stars did not align for Keys. Instead, it was Stephens who rose to the occasion, missing just twice in the first set. The 24-year-old was an unbreakable wall, and could do nothing but look up in disbelief at what she’s accomplished.
"I had surgery January 23rd, if somebody told me then I'd win the US Open I would have said it's impossible," Stephens said.
Being the loser in a final is not an envious place to be in. It's almost actually easier to lose in the semifinals, so you don't have to endure watching your opponent raise the trophy that you so badly wanted your hands on. There's also the rough fact that no one remembers the runner-up (at least not usually).
As Rafael Nadal said so candidly this fortnight: “But I tell you one thing, no, this sport is about victory. This is not about defeats. No, at the end of your career, nobody remembers your defeats, your losses. People remember the victories. For everybody, is everything to win, you know? And that's it.”
It's the champions who walk away with the bigger check and the bigger trophy, and end up on the talk shows the next day. It's their name that is etched into the history books.
A new champion was born on Saturday, one that deserves to bask in her unexpected glory. As for Keys, she is still just 22. She’ll get more chances to play her best tennis.