BY HELENE ELLIOTT
Sloane Stephens couldn’t make sense of it all, couldn’t grasp how she had moved around the court so surely in winning the U.S. Open women’s title eight months after foot surgery had confined her to her couch, couldn’t comprehend that she had soared from 957th in the rankings in late July to the top of the tennis world with her 6-3, 6-0 rout of friend and fellow American Madison Keys on Saturday.
As she stood on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium to accept the winner’s trophy and a $3.7-million check that made her gasp, Stephens beamed non-stop. It was the smile of a champion, one who had faced unrealistic pressure as a teenager but had arrived at 24, at the right time for her and for the suddenly bright future of American women’s tennis.
“It’s probably going to take a couple weeks, months, I don’t know. It’s like, so not real,” said Stephens, whose world ranking will rise from 83 to 17 on Monday. “I feel this is a dream. Like, am I just going to wake up and be, like, it didn’t happen?”
It happened, swiftly and emphatically, fueled by the first 6-0 set in a U.S. Open women’s final since Martina Hingis “bageled” Venus Williams in 1997.
“I think what she’s done has been absolutely amazing,” said Keys, who sobbed when she and Stephens met at the net but was consoled by Stephens during a prolonged hug. “I’m really happy for her and I’m sure _ hopefully _ we will have many more Slam finals against each other.”
This was the first Slam final for both, and they were nervous, understandably so. Their paths had run parallel, especially in the setbacks they faced. Stephens’ broken foot had kept her out of competition for 11 months and Keys had been slowed by two wrist surgeries, and neither was expected to make it this far here. But here they were, tied in the first set until Stephens broke Keys’ serve for a 3-2 lead and used that as a launching pad to finish the set with another service break, on her second set point.
Stephens, channeling her nervous energy to good use, steamrolled through the second set while Keys continued to sabotage herself. Keys committed 30 unforced errors; Stephens committed only six, a happy surprise to her.
“Shut the front door! I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before. Oh, my God. That’s a stat. Snaps for me,” she said, snapping her fingers jubilantly.
Stephens is the daughter of Sybil Smith, who was the first black woman to earn NCAA Division 1 all-America swimming honors while at Boston University, and the late John Stephens, a Pro Bowl running back. It was to her mother, sitting in the players’ box, that she ran soon after Keys hit a forehand into the net on match point. Smith doesn’t usually attend her daughter’s tournaments, but Stephens appreciated her mom’s support here.
“She’s been in my corner the whole time and I’ve had a lot of ups and downs and some really low downs,” said Stephens, who spent part of her childhood in her mother’s hometown of Fresno, Calif., with her grandparents. “Throughout that, my mom has been there 100 percent with me.”
Stephens made her way through a difficult draw that included Roberta Vinci _ who ended Serena Williams’ calendar-year Grand Slam attempt here in 2015 _ No. 11 Dominika Cibulkova and two other top-30 seeds before she defeated No. 9 Venus Williams in a three-set semifinal. Keys faced three unseeded players as well as No. 17 Elena Vesnina and No. 4 Elina Svitolina before she overpowered No. 20 CoCo Vandeweghe in straight sets in her semifinal.
Keys had wrapped a thick bandage around her upper-right thigh during her semifinal match and wore it again on Saturday, though she didn’t cite her injury as a reason for her loss in the first all-American U.S. Open women’s final since Serena Williams defeated Venus Williams in 2002.
“I don’t think I was moving perfectly but at the same time, I’m not going to take anything away from Sloane,” Keys said. “I think she played really well. I don’t think I played great. I think that’s kind of a combination for a disaster for me.”
At some point Keys expects she’ll be able to look back at her accomplishments here and be proud. “Right now,” said Keys, who was invited to Stephens’ post-victory celebration and planned to attend, “it still really hurts.”
Stephens’ only regret was that she couldn’t watch her boyfriend, U.S. national soccer team forward Jozy Altidore, play for Toronto FC in Major League Soccer on Saturday. “I’m happy that he scored two goals. That’s really good,” she said. “He should have got a hat trick. It would have been such a good day.”
It was a grand day for her, certainly, and likely the first of many.