Sloane Stephens never looked shaken by the setting or the stakes in her first Grand Slam final. Her opponent, Madison Keys, most definitely did.
The 83rd-ranked Stephens is only the second unseeded woman to win the tournament in the Open era, which began in 1968.
This was the first all-American women’s final at Flushing Meadows since 2002, when Serena Williams beat Venus Williams.
It was also only the second time in the Open era that two women in New York were making their Grand Slam final debuts against each other. Stephens most certainly handled the occasion better, claiming the last eight games and making only six unforced errors — Keys had 30 — in the entire 61-minute mismatch.
Keys, 22, and Stephens, 24, have known each other for years. They texted and spoke on the phone early in 2017, when both sat out the Australian Open because of operations — Keys on her left wrist, Stephens on her left foot.
Under a clear blue sky, in unseasonably cool conditions in the 60s, the 15th-seeded Keys came out pounding her serves, as usual, producing two aces in her opening game and cranking up the speed to 118 mph in her second. But that didn’t last long.
By Keys’ third service game, Stephens was returning with confidence. It was Keys who blinked first, providing four groundstroke errors to gift the first break and trail 3-2 after 12 minutes. Those miscues just kept on coming, as she repeatedly dumped what should have been routine shots into the net or sprayed them long, the sort of thing that can be a sign of nerves.
Her body language was of someone who was rattled.
She looked up at her coach, former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, in the guest box at Arthur Ashe Stadium, as if hoping for some sort of guidance. She sat in her changeover chair and buried her face in a white towel. After getting broken to trail 4-0 in the second set, the sixth game in a row that went to Stephens, Keys took an angry slap at a tennis ball.
With so much help from the other side of the net, Stephens did not need to be spectacular, just solid, and that she was. She made only two unforced errors in the entire first set — 15 fewer than Keys — and only two of Stephens’ 30 points in the first set came via her own clean winners.
Stephens won 16 of 20 points she served in the first set and didn’t face a single break point until 50 minutes into the final, deep in the second set. She had to deal with three in one game there, erased each with a winner, and held for 5-0. Soon enough it was over.
A year ago, Stephens sat out the U.S. Open because of what turned out to be a stress fracture in her foot. She had surgery in January, and made her season debut at Wimbledon in July, exiting in the first round. Lost her next match, too, in Washington. Since then, she has gone 15-2, and her ranking has soared from outside the top 900, to what will be around No. 20 as of Monday.
And she has become a Grand Slam champion.