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Sloane Stephens, who only five weeks ago was ranked No. 957 and was returning to the tour after dealing with a left leg stress fracture for 11 months, dominated in her first Grand Slam final to outshine fellow American Madison Keys 6-3, 6-0 at the U.S. Open on Saturday.
"It's incredible," said Stephens, during the trophy ceremony. "I honestly, I had surgery January 23rd and if someone told me then I'd win the U.S. Open, I'd say it's impossible. ... This journey's been incredible and I wouldn't change it for the world."
The 24-year-old Stephens put her hand over her mouth in almost disbelief at how easy the 61-minute victory came on her racket. Close friends, the two shared a long hug and words at the net with Stephens seemingly trying to console the 22-year-old Keys.
"I told her I wish there could've been a draw so we both could've won," said Stephens, of their conversation. "To stand here together today is incredible, and that's what real friendship is."
Afterwards, Stephens made her way into the player's box where she hugged her coach, Kamau Murray, and then dissolved into tears in her mother, Sybil Smith's, arms.
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While waiting for the award ceremony to take place, the two friends sat together courtside, chatting and even laughing.
"Sloane is truly one of my favorite people," Keys said. "To get to play her here is really special. Obviously, I didn't play my best tennis today. She was supportive and if there's someone I had to lose to today I'm glad it was her."
The unseeded Stephens was clearly calmer and more organized in her game plan, while the 15th-seeded Keys never appeared comfortable in the surroundings of a Grand Slam championship match.
A first trip to a major for Stephens and Keys, it would be expected that nerves would be an issue on both sides of the net.
Without a doubt, Stephens' game is better designed to take that kind of pressure. She's steadier and quicker with her coverage around the court, and is more patient in waiting for an opportunity to turn offensive on points.
Stephens never faced a break point on serve, won 73% of her first serve points, and amazingly only had six unforced errors in the match.
Keys is a player who goes for broke, and as she failed to make an impact in the match, she became more jittery and started to rush the points.
Having won 21 straight service games in her last two matches to defeat Kaia Kanepi of Estonia in the quarterfinals and 20th-seeded fellow American CoCo Vandeweghe in the semifinals, Keys was broken on five of 12 break points she presented to Stephens in the final. Keys posted 30 unforced errors, which made for the lopsided encounter.
Both players had a delayed start to the their season with Keys starting to play in March because of a wrist injury, and Stephens sitting out 11 months wearing a cast on her foot and returning for Wimbledon.
This summer, Stephens started to make extraordinary strides in her return. She reached the semifinals at Toronto and Cincinnati before heading into the Open. She's now ranked No. 83, but when the new rankings are posted Monday, the new U.S. Open champion, Sloane Stephens, will rank No. 17.
"I should just retire now, I'm never going to be able to top this," said Stephens, laughing on the court.