Sloane has arrived!
The US Open as the last slam of the season, in New York, occupies a very special place for the players and the fans. It is always exciting, intriguing and great fun. 2017 was no different.
The long tennis season, the unpredictable and, many times, challenging conditions in New York can make it difficult but very often, players refer to it as one of their favorite events. For the American contingent, it is even more special as the main competition on their home soil, in the Big Apple.
This year, aside from the usual predictions, commentaries and discussions, the most interesting occurrence was having four American women reaching the semifinals, since 1985.
Three of them were under 25 and considered the rising stars of the sport, excellent sign for the health and future of American tennis. It was also noteworthy that three were African-American, including the veteran Venus Williams, a big day not just for American women but particularly for African-American ones.
During the semis, Venus Williams faced Sloane Stephens, the unseeded player whose ranking was 83 coming into the event, and over 900 a month earlier (USA Today). In the third set of the match, Venus came within two points of winning the match, but the younger player stayed focused, calm and on course to beat idol Venus Williams.
With that win, Sloane Stephens became just the fourth unseeded player to reach the U.S. Open women’s final in the Open era, which began in 1968, setting the stage to face her good friend, Madison Keys.
Keys and Stephens reaching the final of the US Open 2017 Championship made it the first time American women competed for the title since 2002. And more importantly, two young African-American women. Both contestants were first-timer Grand Slam finalist, playing on such an important stage; so predictions were that nerves would play an important role in the affair. Also, considering Keys has much more powerful strokes, most commentators were predicting Madison to come out victorious. But it was not to be!
Calm, collected and focused, playing an extremely clean game, Sloane prevailed. Finishing with 10 winners to just six unforced errors, Sloane won the match 6-3, 6-0. The lopsided score does not tell the entire story; it does not reflect the fact that Madison played a good game and had many chances to get back in it but was refused. Sloane’s focus and control led to such impressive result. Yet another testament to the fact that variety of shots and thoughtful play trump power. ESPN commentators pointed out on multiple occasions that “Sloane was locked in” and she had been so since the tournament in Cincinnati, and from the beginning of the two weeks at the Open.
At the end of the day, Stephens handled the pressure better than Keys and reaped the results of her balanced temperament. But the most heartwarming was the embrace of the two champions at the end of the match; a perfect display of great sportsmanship (sportswomanship in this case!). Great friends off the court and focused competitors on the court. It reminded us of Nadal and Federer, or Venus and Serena: rivals pushing each other forward with respect and friendship.
Sloane’s victory was also significant because it came 60 years after Althea Gibson’s first win here, signaling that the barriers for black women may becoming less impenetrable.
During the ceremony, Stephens thanked her mother, Sybil Smith, for believing in her daughter’s abilities and supporting her. “Parents don’t get enough credit for their support,” Stephens stated. She continued to recall the story of her mother taking her to a tennis academy, at age 12, to be evaluated as a player. The tennis director told Smith her daughter was at best a Division-II college prospect (The Telegraph). What a mistake! That Division-II prospect is the 2017 U.S. Open champion.
With this victory, Stephen’s ranking has jumped to 17 as off today (Monday 9/11/2017), placing her in her rightful position to get seeded in her future tournaments. Hoping and waiting for many great results to come, we are watching!