It was a tight, long and beautiful embrace between two best friends at the net. Two similar narrative arcs, two survivalists meeting on the biggest stage yet of their career. And when it was finally over, tears mixed with sweat. In a poignant moment that seemed to never end, it was unclear who was hanging on to whom: Madison Keys, the vanquished or Sloane Stephens, the victor.
And if the crowd was disappointed at the lopsided affair — Stephens won it 6-3, 6-0 in 61 minutes — they didn’t show it. The cheers during the hug and the minutes that followed were louder than that during championship point.
Presentation ceremonies are usually a dull, boring affair — except when the trophy is being lifted — but this one came with its moments. Like when Stephens’ eyes turned wide and she exclaimed a “Wow!” when handed her prize money of $3.7 million. She came across as being admirably impish and graceful in celebration, still unsure of standing under the winner’s spotlight at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
On court, she was anything but unsure. On court, Stephens was commanding and her tennis pitch-perfect.
Under a clear blue New York sky, 15th seeded Keys began the match in typical fashion by pounding a couple of aces. Just as she was finding her footing, she got broken in the fifth game hitting a forehand long. She seemed to unravel in similar fashion — the same error offered Stephens another break point and she took the first set 6-3.
Stephens held serve at the start of the second set, and then broke to 2-0 with another passing shot — a hot, precise crosscourt forehand. Her racket moved like a whip, and Keys who has an equally assaulting powerstroke, was rendered helpless.
A frustrated Keys looked to her box for support. A stony-faced Lindsay Davenport could offer nothing.
Both admitted to being nervous before the match, their first major singles final, but it was Stephens who showed more poise under pressure. She was aggressive and unafraid to hit the big shots. The statistics tell the story: she hit only 10 winners and not a single ace. But she did not double fault either and committed only six unforced errors.
Keys, in comparison, accounted for 30. Her heavily bandaged thigh didn’t seem to help matters either and she had trouble moving and trusting her body, netting easy shots and hitting long what were sure-shot winners. She was broken again in the fourth game of the second set.
Keys had won 21 straight service games in her last two matches to defeat Kaia Kanepi and fellow American CoCo Vandeweghe. In sharp contrast, she was broken on five of 12 break points she presented to Stephens in the final.
The most impressive moment of the match came when Stephens was leading 6-3, 4-0. Keys raised the level of her game and had three break points to get back some momentum. But Stephens fought back to deuce with confident winners from the baseline and net.
The final game of the match saw some intense rallies from both sides, much to the delight of the crowd, and Keys was able to stave off two championship points. Of course, it was a little too far and a little too late in the day, and when she saw yet another forehand hitting the nets, Stephens dropped her racquet and flashed that all too familiar dazzling smile, full and dimpled.
Catapulted from a ranking of 957 earlier this year, Stephens will now sit on a comfortable No. 17 on Monday. Her best friend will move up to rank 12. If this tournament was any indication, this will be a friendship — and maybe a rivalry, because why not? — that will surely deepen over the years to come as the women’s game transitions to a younger generation.