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By Chris Oddo | Saturday September 9, 2017

Sloane Stephens saved the very best for last at the 2017 U.S. Open. The 24-year-old American became the lowest-ranked champion in the tournament’s history, capping an improbable return to relevancy with a 6-3, 6-0 victory over her compatriot and close friend Madison Keys on Saturday at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York.

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The first all-American final at the U.S. Open that did not feature one of the Williams sisters since 1984, and just the seventh meeting of first-time major finalists in Open Era history (since 1968) gave tennis fans a glimpse of what the future of American and women’s tennis might look like in the years to come.

"I mean, there is no words to describe how I got here, the process it took or anything like that, because if you told someone this story, they'd be, like, That's insane," Stephens told reporters after the match. "I'm just happy to be here."

Stephens' two-month revival, dubbed affectionately as the “Summer of Sloane,” started without much fanfare. The former World No.11 started her comeback from left foot surgery at Wimbledon this summer requiring a protected ranking to gain entrance, and carrying an actual ranking of 957.

After losses in her first two matches, Stephens’ comeback quickly picked up steam on the North American hardcourts where she reached back-to-back semifinals in Toronto and Cincinnati.

Playing with low expectations and a newfound appreciation for her lot in life, Stephens seemed to be on the cusp of something big.

But not even those stellar performances could have prepared the tennis world for what they witnessed from Stephens at this U.S. Open. Having won just six matches in her six previous Grand Slam appearances, she went on a run for the ages, reeling off seven straight victories and surviving three straight three-setters before cruising past 22-year-old Keys in a final performance for the ages.

"Sloane has always had the talent," Keys told reporters after the final. "I think not being on the tennis court for so long really helped her realize how much she loves the game, so in a lot of ways, I think it was the best thing that happened to her. I'm really happy for her, and, you know, I'm sure -- hopefully, we will have many more Slam finals against each other."

Stephens played the perfect match against the hard-hitting Keys, keeping her on the run with precise topspin drives and, when needed, striking electrifying passing shots and winners. She finished with 10 winners against just six unforced errors while Keys, pressing against the world-class defense of Stephens, committed 30 unforced errors against just 18 winners.

The tone was set early.

Stephens broke twice in the first set, including in the ninth game when Keys committed back-to-back backhand errors to hand Stephens a one-set lead. The 24-year-old Florida native put her pedal to the metal in the second set and she never let up, even when Keys earned her only three break points of the match while Stephens served with a 4-0 lead. Stephens stamped out that last-ditch attempt by Keys by winning a 19-stroke rally to save the third break point of the game.

She went on to hold serve and converted her third match point in the next game when Keys delivered a forehand drive into the net.

Keys was on a comeback trail of her own in New York. After undergoing two surgeries on her left wrist this winter, she started to work her way back to form this spring. But things really started to fall into place this summer when she won the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford. At this year's U.S. Open she notched impressive three-set wins over Elina Vesnina and No.4-seeded Elina Svitolina before racing past Kaia Kanepi and CoCo Vandeweghe in back-to-back straight-setters to reach heer first career major final.

Despite the loss, the 22-year-old says she'll look back on the experience fondly.

"Obviously I didn't play my best tennis today," she said. "I'm really disappointed. But if you told me as I was getting on a plane to go have my second surgery that I could have a Grand Slam finalist trophy in my hands at the end of the year, I think I'd be really happy."

After Stephens exchanged celebratory glances with her team, she headed to the net for a heartfelt moment with Keys. The close friends were locked in embrace for nearly 20 seconds, as Stephens consoled her emotional friend and confidant.

“If there’s someone I had to lose to today, I’m glad it’s her,” Keys later said as she choked back tears during the trophy presentation.

While it wasn’t one of Keys best days, this match was most certainly a crowning achievement from start to finish for Stephens. Her athletic prowess was on full display from first ball and she never got flustered by the magnitude of the occasion.

Stephens won 47 percent of her return points against Keys’ vaunted serve and broke five times on 12 opportunities. All the while, she relentlessly kept Keys on the run, forcing her into the corners while running down Keys best shots to make the afternoon as frustrating as it possibly could be for her opponent.

Stephens will rise to No.17 with her title, 937 spots from where her journey began this summer. Two months later she’s a major champion, the talk of New York and reason to believe that in tennis, like in life, hope springs eternal.

Photo Source: Getty


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