WATCH: This year's US Open coverage will come from none other than last year's champion, Dominic Thiem.

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NEW YORK—Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys rang the opening bell of the 2021 US Open today in Arthur Ashe Stadium, meeting in a first-round match under conditions markedly different from the last time they collided in this arena. That last occasion was the 2017 final, which capped a tournament with enormous domestic fanfare: All four semifinalists were homegrown, and three were either African-American or bi-racial at a time when the game was thirsting for increased diversity.

As for the match itself, Stephens won it in a blow-out, 6-3, 6-0.

This match-up fairly leaped off the page when the draw was made, the most compelling early pairing of this bounceback, fan-laden US Open. Apart from their outfits, and Stephens’ elaborate, braided topknot, the 26- and 28-year-olds still did not look substantially different from their 2017 selves. But the world has become a very different place over the course of the past four years, and the fact that neither of these American stars was seeded is the least of it.

“It seems like it was a hundred years ago, not just four,” Keys said of that 2017 final, shortly after Stephens won today’s thriller, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (9). “The world is obviously a completely different place now as far as regular life goes. But then also with tennis, a lot has changed.”

There’s no need to recite the profound changes that have occurred in those four years, challenges that stretched the global community to the breaking point. But sport has been instrumental in leading us back to the way things were pre-Covid, and this US Open will be remembered—we can only hope—as the Bounceback Open, the national championships that signaled a return to some semblance of normalcy. Fans were welcomed back, proof of vaccination the only requirement. Strict social distancing protocols were abandoned. The food court, bars, shops and seats at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center were all there to be enjoyed.

The chirping clatter of cicadas, swelling and subsiding in volume, greeted those making their way to the South Gate of the venue. Turnstile cowboys scanned bar-coded tickets and proof of vaccination for entering fans. Most of the fans, even those who wore masks while standing back to belly button in the entry line, yanked them off once inside.

Masks? We don’t need no stinkin’ masks!

Inside, sharp memories of tournaments past gently bumped up against the present. There were more fans in the Mercedes pavilion (this year, though, they were ogling electric vehicles) than watching the 11 a.m. match on the adjacent Court 11. A few buckaroos were already bellied up at the “Baseline Cocktails” stand, a small, square concession that occupies perhaps the most desirable location on the grounds, very close to the venue’s main landmark, the South Plaza fountains.

It seemed just like old times, or at least until there came lurching toward me a fellow with a big backpack, wearing a pith helmet, double masks, and a pair of blue rubber gloves. It was a healthy reminder not to take this new world for granted.

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The world is obviously a completely different place now as far as regular life goes. But then also with tennis, a lot has changed. Madison Keys

Traditionally, word of a star sighting in an unexpected place races through a US Open crowd like ripples of wind in a wheat field. I overheard someone telling a friend that Alexander Zverev, arguably the biggest threat to Slam-seeking Novak Djokovic at the moment, was practicing on generally inconspicuous Court 16. I followed a small but growing group that made its way over there.

True enough, Zverev was there, belting out forehands like an ATM machine coughing up cash. Admirers jammed the walkways and modest bleachers, many pleading for recognition, “Sascha! Sascha!” Zverev bantered with the crowd, tossed a few balls their way in jest. Across the narrow walkway on the next court, John Millman and Henri Laaksonen were grinding, grunting and sweating their way through a fierce tussle Laaksonen would ultimately win.

A concession staffer drifted, the back of her black t-shirt bearing the message, “Farm Food Focused.” There were other signs of interest in all things healthy, sustainable, and green here and there. But the intense heat and humidity were not sufficient to dissuade a healthy number of fans from lining up to purchase grilled black angus steak sandwiches (though there hasn’t been a black angus steer spotted in Queens since the early 1800s). And there certainly was no reason to fret over the future of the familiar fried chicken and burger-and-fries concessions. Some things were meant to outlast even a pandemic.

Drinking fountains were not one of those things. The activation buttons on all the fountains had been removed, leaving many baffled when they leaned over to drink—and found just a gaping hole where the button used to be. But there were BYO bottle filling stations here and there.

It was a familiar sight: parched fans filling up water bottles on a hot day in Queens. But the way in which they did was rather unfamiliar.

It was a familiar sight: parched fans filling up water bottles on a hot day in Queens. But the way in which they did was rather unfamiliar.

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Walking around the grounds, watching scores of fans pour in and out of the merchandise concessions, you had to wonder, Is anyone watching tennis out here? There certainly were on Court 17, where Felix Auger-Aliassime—looking militant in what appeared to be camo pattern shorts and a desert-tan collarless shirt—was engaged in a firefight with Evgeny Donskoy.

Court 17 is the US Open’s equivalent to the late, lamented “Bullring”—the French Open court that became famous because of its circular geometry, and the intimate viewing experience it offered. The court was about half-filled, but it was the kind of passionate, tennis-literate crowd that made it seem full. The players split the first two sets, but then Donskoy cracked the Auger-Aliassime serve to forge ahead, 5-3 in the critical third.

A disgruntled fan sitting close to the court, shouted, “Come on, Felix, focus!” Now there’s a timeless US Open moment, and it felt really, really good.

But even that could not upstage the tussle in Ashe between Keys and Stephens. Stephens led the rivalry 4-2, with the two splitting four matches since the 2017 final. Just 22 at the time, Keys simply froze up in the limelight. It looked like today’s match might be going in a similar direction when Stephens won the first set handily, 6-3.

But Keys drove her stake into the rubberized cement, walloping forehand after forehand to take the second set. The third one was tight, and the deciding tiebreaker was there to take for Keys when Stephens, leading 3-2, dropped three straight points, with keys having one more serve.

But Stephens turned it around, just like that, reeling off three straight points to reach match point. A massive forehand winner by Keys wiped it way, but Stephens converted her third match point and never offered one.

The Keys vs. Stephens first-rounder more than lived up to its billing, to the delight of a crowd that returned to a home away from home.

The Keys vs. Stephens first-rounder more than lived up to its billing, to the delight of a crowd that returned to a home away from home.

The outcome in this Ashe rematch was the same, but the match’s high quality cast a light on the road ahead for both women, and perhaps for the American game. Is it foolish to imagine these two close friends playing another US Open final someday?

“I think Sloane and I have had some massive ups since then, and we have also had some downs,” Keys said. Stephens has been ranked as high as No. 3, Keys No. 7. Both have reached semifinalists (or better, in Stephens’ case) at other majors, but Keys is struggling to improve a No. 42 ranking, while Stephens languishes at No. 66.

“I think today's match showed we still both really have a high level of tennis left,” Keys added.

Both players are in the heart of their careers, with plenty of time left to bounce back. This latest match was a splendid way to launch this tournament that looked and felt so much like the pre-pandemic US Open, but also seemed a fitting start to a new, happier period for this event, the nation’s fans, and the world’s players.