NEW YORK, NY, USA - Sloane Stephens became the fifth unseeded player to ever take home a Slam title, defeating compatriot and friend Madison Keys, 6-3, 6-0 to win the US Open. Stephens, who came into the tournament ranked No.83, sealed an incredible run to her maiden major title, defeating Roberta Vinci, World No.10 Dominika Cibulkova, Ashleigh Barty, Julie Goerges, Anastasija Sevastova, World No.9 Venus Williams, and World No.16 Keys to win her first title since the 2016 Volvo Car Open and cap off a summer hardcourt run that saw her win 16 of 19 matches. All this after playing her first tournament after an 11-month injury lay-off at Wimbledon in July.
Three takeaways from the US Open final:
Sloane Stephens' nerves of steel won the tournament.
In her dramatic semifinal win over Venus, Stephens found herself on the brink of the loss in the third set, serving at 4-5, 30-all. Two points from bowing out from an inspired run through the draw to make her second major semifinal. Two points from ceding way to perhaps the sentimental favorite for the title, 37-year-old Venus, who was bidding to make a third Slam final in a single season for the first time in 15 years.
Sloane proceeded to win the longest rally of the match - 25 shots! - with the best shot she hit all tournament. Wrong-footed by Venus into her backhand corner, Stephens' showed off her balance and agility, halting her momentum to the forehand side to come back stick an incredible backhand up the line for a winner. She would lose just one point for the remainder of the match - 9 of the last 10 points - to hold to 5-5, break Venus at love, and close out the match under intense pressure to book a spot in her first Slam final.
In her abbreviated season - she has played just five tournaments - Stephens is 8-0 in three-set matches. She came back from a break down in the final set to score wins over Cibulkova and Sevastova over the fortnight. She is how 5-0 in finals over her career.
Though the final would pit Keys power vs. Stephens' consistency, the major variable was pressure. Which young American, playing in her first major final, would hold her nerve? The answer came quickly on Saturday evening. Stephens hit just two unforced errors in the opening set and when Keys found ways to get into her service games in the second set, Stephens slammed the door, digging out of 15-30 holes twice and then saving triple-break point - again by coming up big in the longest rally of the match (19 shots) - to keep Keys at bay.
All summer, Stephens has been tested and come through. She has still yet to lose to a player currently ranked outside the Top 5 on hardcourts this year. That she has come through so calmly and confidently under pressure is the reason she was the last one standing on Saturday.
For Madison Keys, the only way to gain experience is...to gain experience.
There's a lot to work through for Keys. She played a stupendous tournament, one that is no less surprising that Stephens', to make her first Slam final. She played dominant tennis at times, and she showed tremendous fight and grit to claw out comeback wins when her best tennis was elusive. She was embraced by the late night crowd on Ashe and there's no doubt the casual sports fan will know the name Madison Keys when the tournament rolls around next year.
"It's obviously really conflicting," Keys said. "On top of that, I'm really sad for me, but I'm so happy for her. Like I said, I think drinks will help me through this tough time," she said with a smile.
"I think right now it's not the time to kind of try to sort of through my emotions, because I don't even know where I am. But I think tomorrow or even the next day, this last couple of weeks for me has been amazing, and I'm going to look back and be really happy. But right now it still really hurts."
In the biggest match of her career, Keys could not find her game. Much credit should go to Stephens and the mental pressure she exerts against the tour's biggest hitters with her impenetrable speed and defense. It's no surprise that Stephens' two losses on hardcourt this season came against players who could match her defensive abilities, in Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki. Give Stephens some free points and things can run away quickly. Just ask Petra Kvitova, who Stephens handily beat twice over the summer.
Keys is the youngest American woman to make the final of a Slam since Serena Williams in 2003 at Wimbledon, and the 2017 US Open is just the start. Despite her explosive game, her career has been a slow build, one that will simply take time to mature. Keys is the first to admit this is a difficult fact to accept. You just can't wake up tomorrow infused with the experience you need for the moment you've earned. But Keys can take solace in the fact that the experience she's gained over the last two years put her in the position to win her first Slam. Next time, she'll already be one step closer when she steps on the court.
A final that will be remembered for its friendly spirit.
The shot of the match lasted 20 seconds, and involved no topspin, no slice, or dropshot. They hug at the net shared between two genuine friends who knew so well each other's struggles, each other's doubts, and what the moment of triumph and defeat meant for each, will be the lasting memory of a 2017 US Open. A fortnight full of spit and fire, of favorites and underdogs, ended with two of the most unlikely of comeback stories consoling and celebrating each other in the most earnest of ways.
"We have known each other for so long and we have been through so much that we wanted to share that moment with each other," Keys said. "To be able to share my first Slam experience with a really close friend when it's also her first Slam is a really special moment. There's no one else in the world that would have meant as much as it did."
The two plan to celebrate their successful US Open runs together on Saturday night. Keys plans to make the most of Stephens' invitation to join her celebrations. "She can buy me drinks, all of the drinks," Keys said, laughing."
As for Stephens, she was already in a celebratory mood during her raucous champion's press conference, and one thing was clear: She isn't going to let her good friend Madison wallow in any disappointment after the loss.
"Feel bad for her? She was in the finals, too! Did you see the check she's about to get?" Stephens said as the press room erupted in laughter.
"I'm sure she'll be just fine."