By Jamal Murphy
Sloane Stephens defeated Madison Keys 6-3, 6-0 Saturday night, becoming the first U.S. woman besides Venus or Serena Williams to win the U.S. Open since Lindsay Davenport in 1998. It was the first Open final involving two American women, neither being a Williams sister, since 2000. It was the first all-African American U.S. Open final not involving the Williams sisters ever.
Stephens’ victory Saturday was obviously significant because it was her first Grand Slam championship, but the event was even bigger historically and moving forward.
Stephens now has a U.S. Open Championship under her belt, which validates her as one of the best tennis players in the world. However, it is her journey that makes her that much more dangerous looking ahead.
Much was expected — immediately — from Stephens after she defeated Serena Williams in the 2013 Australian Open and advanced to the semifinals as a teenager. But, she was not quite ready to take that next step as a Grand Slam contender. Many fans wrote her off as potentially one of America’s next greats, even before she suffered a stress fracture to her right foot in 2016. Coming off of surgery in January, Stephens was an afterthought coming into Flushing, Queens in August. However, she proved to be a different player and person.
In response to a question about what she had learned about herself, after her semifinal win over Venus Williams, Stephens said “that I’m a real fighter, that I have a lot of grit. Surprising.”
“I don’t give up,” she continued, “I’m not just going to give it to someone. I’m not just going to let them take it from me. I’m going to make sure I give everything that I have and leave everything on the court at all times, no matter what.”
Those are scary words to hear from a player who possesses all of the requisite physical gifts to dominate the Tour. It was the mental game, that championship confidence and fight, that Stephens was lacking. Until now.
Madison Keys seemed to fill that “next American great” void for American tennis fans over the last couple years. Fans who had written off Stephens looked at Keys as their new darling as she reached the semifinals of the Australian Open and quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2015. She, like Stephens, had all the physical tools, but was missing the killer instinct needed to truly contend for Grand Slams.
Keys also turned a corner over the last three weeks. After beating #4 seed Elina Svitolina to advance to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open last week, she called her third-set comeback “more than just a win.”
“So often a match like that could have gone really quick for me, and I could have lost that third set fairly easily, come off and been really disappointed,” Keys said. “So the fact that I dug deep and I figured things out and came out with a win means a lot to me. More than that, it just proves how deep I can dig and how hard I can fight.”
Like Stephens, Keys came into her own during the 2017 U.S. Open. Her disappointing loss to Stephens in Saturday’s final should only further harden her resolve. Keys is confident the two will continue to meet in high-stakes matches. “I’m sure, hopefully, we will have many more Slam finals against each other,” she said after the finals loss.
Although Serena Williams did not play in this year’s U.S. Open and she will shortly return as an obvious force to be reckoned with, it definitely feels like a torch is being passed in women’s tennis. Stephens and Keys, 24 and 22 respectively, are the future, and the future is now. They both admire and appreciate the Williams sisters and thoroughly understand the roads the two Williams paved for them and others.
“Obviously, Venus, we are following in her footsteps. She’s been here. She’s represented the game so well as an African American woman,” Stephens remarked after beating the elder Williams sister in the semifinals Thursday night. “Maddie [Madison Keys] and I are here to join her and represent just as well as Venus has in the past and honored to be here.”
Stephens’ and Keys’ ascent to the top of the game is evidence that the tennis landscape has changed from a social perspective, as well. With two more African American women clearly at the top of American women’s tennis, it is fair to conclude that the game has become more diverse and inclusive.
While Venus and Serena Williams were, of course, African Americans and on top of the tennis world, they were sisters who came from one tennis family. The argument could be made that their success in the sport was an anomaly and not representative of diverse opportunity in the game itself. Stephens and Keys, though close like sisters, are two African American women from completely different backgrounds, which represents a broader, more authentic sense of diversity.
This is of great significance, because tennis is the preeminent women’s sport. It is the most accepted in our society for reasons too complex to discuss here. Tennis offers a platform where women can become “superstars” on par with male athletes in other sports, such as soccer, basketball, football and baseball. Serena Williams has been rightly recognized as one of the best athletes of all-time, regardless of sport. That is rare praise in women’s sports.
The high profile of tennis makes the success of women of color that much more important. It helps further break down ignorant stereotypes and bring to the forefront more diversity of leadership, influence, opinion and perspective.
Stephens and Keys seem built for this platform. Their natural talent and newfound grit and determination are accompanied by intelligence, charm, warmth, awareness and quick wit. The public display of affection the two showed each other after Saturday’s final was tearjerking and was followed by press conference jokes about Stephens’ celebration party being dedicated to buying Keys conciliatory drinks.
When asked during the press conference if winning one Grand Slam title made her hungry for more, Stephens replied “of course, girl, did you see that check that that lady handed me?” And when asked if she felt bad for Keys because she lost, she followed up “did you see the check she’s about to get? She’ll be just fine.”
Not only is she equipped to win more Grand Slam titles, she might be ready for a stand-up comedy tour.
Stephens and Keys seem destined for more championship battles, while gracing the top of women’s tennis rankings. With that comes a lot of hard work and responsibility. But, after their on and off-court performances during the 2017 U.S. Open, they both appear more than ready to handle whatever comes their way.
It will also be a pleasure for us to watch.
Jamal Murphy is a contributor to CBS Local. He writes extensively about college basketball, the NBA and other sports, often focusing on the intersection of sports and social justice/awareness. Listen to Jamal on the Bill Rhoden On Sports podcast (iTunes & Soundcloud) that he cohosts with legendary sports columnist, Bill Rhoden. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @Blacketologist.