NEW YORK — For a decade, tennis fans have asked who will succeed Venus and Serena Williams as the next U.S. champion. Sloane Stephens answered the last two weeks at the U.S. Open and emphatically so on Saturday.
Stephens was near flawless in her first Grand Slam final, dancing around countrywoman and friend Madison Keys 6-3, 6-0 at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The viral moment came after, when she looked eye-poppingly astonished at receiving the $3.7 million winner’s check in a white envelope labeled “Sloane Stephens.”
“Did you see that check that lady handed me?” Stephens said later in the press room. “Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will.”
Not bad after missing 10 months due to a foot injury. The Jan. 23 surgery — and following four months unable to walk — was still in Stephens’ mind during her trophy acceptance speech.
“If someone told me then that I’d win the U.S. Open, it’s impossible,” she said. “I should just retire now. I told Maddie [Keys], I’m never going to be able to top this.”
Stephens, a 24-year-old daughter of a Pro Bowl running back and All-America swimmer, became the 12th U.S. woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open Era since 1968. And the first other than the Williams sisters in nearly 16 years.
A U.S. man hasn’t won a Grand Slam singles title in 14 years, by far the longest drought in history.
Arguably the fastest woman on tour, Stephens was the cleaner player Saturday afternoon, just as she was against Venus Williams in Thursday’s semifinals.
She didn’t make an unforced error until the ninth game. The power-serving Keys had committed 13 by then. Stephens had only six for the match versus 30 for Keys.
“I made six unforced errors in the whole match?” she retorted to a reporter, beaming. “Shut the front door.”
Stephens’ pre-match strategy worked.
“I literally was looking at car reviews last night on Auto Trader,” she said. “That’s how bored I was.”
A Grand Slam tennis season that began with Venus and Serena meeting in their first major final in more than seven years ended with Stephens and Keys, 22, showcasing what could be the near future of American tennis.
Serena, 35, has been out since winning the Australian Open in January due to pregnancy. She gave birth Sept. 1 to a girl and hopes to return to defend her title in Melbourne and match Margaret Court‘s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
Venus, 37, won more Grand Slam singles matches than any woman this year, making two finals and a semifinal here. It was her best season in the better part of a decade, but how much does she have left?
While Venus and Serena marched toward each other at that Australian Open, Stephens and Keys spent January at home texting each other. Stephens said if she could face any player in the U.S. Open final, it would be Keys.
“I told her [after the match] I wish there could be a draw because I wished we could have both won,” Stephens said.
The former No. 11 player Stephens came back from surgery July 4 and didn’t win a match until Aug. 7. Her ranking fell to No. 957 in early August because of the missed time.
On Monday, she’ll be No. 17 and the fourth-highest-ranked American (Serena is fifth at No. 22). A big change from 2010, when Venus and Serena were the only Americans to finish the year ranked in the top 57.
Keys, who at age 14 won her first WTA main-draw match and was featured in Sports Illustrated next to Jordan Spieth, underwent two wrist surgeries in the last 11 months.
“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,” she said, adding that she’s been invited to Stephens’ celebration (and joked she wants her drinks paid for). “Today came down to nerves and all of that, and I just don’t think I handled the occasion perfectly.”
Both players fulfilled promise in the last few years by reaching the Australian Open semifinals — Stephens by bouncing Serena Williams in 2013 and Keys overcoming Venus Williams in 2015.
But given each player’s injury setbacks, neither was expected to challenge deep into the second week in New York. Stephens lost in the first round at Wimbledon. Keys was bounced in the second round of the French Open and Wimbledon.
Stephens had no words after match point. Not even a scream. She just covered her mouth. She had plenty to say on court about 20 minutes later, punctuated by this story:
“When I was 11 years old, my mom took me to a tennis academy,” Stephens said on court, with her mother, Sybil Smith, looking on from the crowd. “One of the directors there told my mom that I’d be lucky if I was a Division II player and I got a scholarship. I think any parent that ever supports their child, you can be me one day. So parents, never give up on your kids. If they want to do something, always encourage them.”
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U.S. women to win Grand Slam singles titles (Open Era since 1968)
Billie Jean King (12 total, including pre-Open Era)
Nancy Richey (2)
Chris Evert (18)
Barbara Jordan (1)
Martina Navratilova (18)
Tracy Austin (2)
Monica Seles (9, with 8 coming while she competed for Yugoslavia)
Lindsay Davenport (3)
Serena Williams (23)
Venus Williams (7)
Jennifer Capriati (3)
Sloane Stephens (1)