By Jane Voigt
A new star was born yesterday when American Sloane Stephens won her first major title in women’s singles at the U.S. Open. Today, Rafael Nadal won his third U.S. Open and 16th major overall men’s singles championship. The dichotomy was just another quirky result in an overall unconventional U.S. Open.
Sloane Stephens, ranked No. 83 in the world when the event began, provided the biggest chance to witness the birth of a new American tennis star not named Venus or Serena Williams. Stephens’ victory was miraculous, considering events that lead up to it. Out for 11 months with a foot injury, ranked No. 984 before the hard-court season began, and unseeded entering the tournament. In fact, the Florida native did not start hitting tennis balls with Coach Kamau Murray until May and that was while she sat on a table.
“Impossible, I would say,” Stephens told ESPN, immediately after her defeat of Keys, 6-3, 6-0.
“You always expect to play well and try hard and give a good effort, which she has been doing very consistently,” Murray said, as reported by The New York Times. So long as you do that, you put yourself in a position to win, but to win this many matches so soon … she’s blessed.”
The match was not a great one. Both women did not play their best throughout. Keys never seemed to settle in and unforced errors piled up like snow on New York streets in winter. Stephens was steady, efficient and fleet of foot. The match was over in 61 minutes.
Yet, the match was sport at its best: two up-coming athletic American women on the biggest stage in tennis. It was emotionally captivating, innocent in its purity of game, and what the U.S. Open needed to cap an otherwise uncharacteristic event. Stephens became the lowest-ranked player to win the U.S. Open title in the Open Era.
Stephens’ muted reaction to the win – the blank stare at the people in her player’s box – and then the sincere love and private conversation the two shared at the net as Madison cried on her friend’s shoulder filled the vast cavern of Arthur Ashe Stadium with an inexplicable energy rarely experienced at this big of an occasion. The afternoon became more about Stephens’ and Keys and the possibilities of what tennis can create, than it did about who won or lost.
“I didn’t play my best tennis today and was disappointed, but Sloane, being the great friend she was, was very supportive,” Keys said inside Ashe. “If there is someone I have to lost to today, I’m glad it’s her.”
Sloane’s cute comments and shock when presented with a check for $3.7 million delighted fans and viewers worldwide. “That’s a lot of money,” she said, overcome by the payday jackpot.
Stephens’ was asked in her post-match press conference if she was now hungry to win another slam. “Of course, girl. Did you see that check that lady handed me?”
Fact is, Stephens has never lost a final. She is a perfect 5-0. And her tennis ability is of a caliber that should win her multiple major titles. “I’m going to be seeded at tournaments again,” she said. “It’s so exciting, right? How things change so quickly.”
But the status quo prevailed on the men’s side. Fifty of 51 men’s singles slam finals, including this U.S. Open, have featured one the Big Four: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. And, as of today, another one has made history: Rafael Nadal (No.1). He defeated first-time finalist Kevin Anderson (No. 28), 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. That means one of the Big Four have captured 46 of the last 51 major singles titles.
“After a couple years of injuries and not playing good, this season has been emotional,” Nadal said, during the awards presentation. “The crowd here is unbelievable. Make me feel so happy. I feel a little bit like at home.”
Nadal had won the Open in 2010 and 2013. Today was his fourth Open final.
“Congratulations, Rafa,” Anderson said on court. “You’ve been an idol of mine. You’re one of the greatest ambassadors of our sport.”
Nadal was making his 23rd appearance in a slam final, second only to Federer with 29. The Spaniard had not won a hard-court title since January, 2014, at the Qatar Open. His victory today will be marked with a few distracting facts. He never met a player ranked under 50 until the semifinal, when he defeated Juan Martin del Potro (No. 24). Additionally, Nadal did not beat a top-ten competitor throughout the tournament, which is a first for a men’s Grand Slam champion in the Open Era.
Yet nothing can take away the fact that Nadal fiercely worked his way through the top section of the draw, the one that proved to be more difficult. He won 7 rounds, which is what it takes to win $3.7 million. After being handed the envelope, Nadal folded it in half and stuck it in his pocket. It was as if the money was secondary to winning, which captures Nadal perfectly. The man who gives his all, 100% of the time.