With 2017 nearing its close, it's time to decide what was the year's best match. Steve Tignor will conclude his top 10 contest countdown over the next two weeks—but which was your favorite? We want to know, so vote for your favorite match in our poll.
Tennis Channel will air the Top 3 matches with the most votes on December 31st, in full.
As with the other two US Open matches in our Top 10 list—Venus Williams vs. Petra Kvitova and Juan Martin del Potro vs. Dominic Thiem—the semifinal between Sloane Stephens and Williams looked at first to be a much-hyped dud. This was a battle of two generations of African-American players, and the winner stood a very good chance of holding the US Open champion’s trophy that weekend. But it took a while for Sloane-Venus to heat up, and to live up to its own dramatic potential.
Venus, as she can do, started out sluggishly. Stephens won the first set with ease, and threatened to break early in the second. It was then, unfortunately for her, that she understood the significance of what she was about to do. Sloane tightened up at the same time that Williams loosened up, and there they were, seemingly in no time at all, playing one set for a trip to the US Open final. That grueling, gripping, 73-minute, 12-game final frame would live up to the hype and then some.
With Venus hitting out and Sloane carefully blending offense and defense, the two women traded tough service holds. Through the first nine games, it seemed that Williams was destined to find a way through; she had reached two major finals already in 2017, and had won a similarly tight and tense match two nights earlier against Petra Kvitova. But with Stephens serving at 4-5, 30-30, destiny changed sides.
Williams was two points from victory, and the pro-Venus audience was revving up its vocal cords for a celebration. At 30-30, Sloane began by attacking with her forehand, but seeing no way though Venus’ defenses, she did what she often does: She retreated, hit soft and short, and placed the burden of creating on her opponent. It makes sense, because Sloane is a natural counter-puncher, but she had never come up with a counter-punch quite like this one. Williams hit a backhand approach that appeared to have Stephens wrong-footed; instead, Sloane rotated her upper body and plucked a clean down-the-line backhand winner seemingly from thin air.
“I knew that at some point I’d have an opportunity,” Stephens said later. “It was whether I decided to step up and take it or not was going to be kind of like the deciding factor.”
That backhand would be her step-up shot. The normally diffident 24-year-old responded with a fist-pump and a “Come on!” It was as if she had been freed to finally show off everything she can do on a tennis court. Stephens started the next game by running down a weak Williams volley and deftly dropping a lob on the baseline for a winner. On the next point, she tracked down a Williams net cord and calmly knifed a sharp-angle drop shot for another winner. From there, it was a short, confident trip to the final, and to her first Grand Slam title.
As Sloane would say of her Open-winning performance, “Like, how insane is this?”
By the end of the tournament, tennis had a new African-American star. With that backhand pass, Stephens may have grabbed a torch from the 37-year-old Williams. Who knows, someday Stephens might pass that same torch to Cori 'CoCo' Gauff, a 13-year-old African-American who reached the girls’ final at the Open.
When Venus made her Flushing Meadows debut in 1997 and went all the way to the final, she was called a “party crasher.” Twenty years later, African-Americans are no longer the outliers in U.S. women’s tennis; they’re the tradition.