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Column Copyright 2017 by Paul Fein

Stephens Stuns Keys in Improbable
US Open Women's Final

     "Given the same chance as others have had, blacks could dominate tennis in as little as ten to fifteen years just as they have dominated in other sports." - Arthur Ashe, in 1988.

Althea Gibson would have beamed with pride. On the 60th anniversary of her historic first African-American triumph at the US Open (then the U.S. Nationals), three of the four women's semifinalists and both finalists are African American. Gibson, a courageous pioneer in the ignoble Jim Crow era, endured racial discrimination throughout her career, though she was honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City after she won the 1957 Wimbledon. Her prime time came as an amateur, a decade before Open Tennis arrived, and, sadly, she spent her last years impoverished. Serena Williams, the most rewarded beneficiary of both Gibson's legacy and the Open Era, has amassed more than $100 million in prize money and endorsements, besides her Open-record 23 majors.

While Serena, 36, recently gave birth to a girl, her ageless sister Venus, 37, reached the US Open semifinals, an amazing 20 years after reaching her first final at Flushing Meadows in an unforgettable debut. Suddenly, the post-Williams future seems bright again for American women's tennis, thanks to two young African Americans. They demonstrated their tennis prowess in Arthur Ashe Stadium, named for the first US Open men's champion in 1968, the first African American man to win a Grand Slam title, and even more notably, an admired humanitarian and civil rights activist.

Before the final, Madison Keys talked about her improbable run along with that of Sloane Stephens. "I was actually just laughing and thinking, who would have thought in Australia [in January] that Sloane and I would be the finalists at the US Open?" Keys said. "Neither one of us were playing at the time, both just having surgeries. So it's really amazing. I have known Sloane for a long time and she's a close friend of mine. To be able to play her in both of our first [Grand Slam] finals is a really special moment, especially with everything that we have gone through this year."

The 22-year-old Keys rebounded from wrist surgeries last November and again this June. After struggling with a 5-7 match record before Wimbledon, she honed and harnessed her power game to produce a splendid 11-1 mark. Healthy and happy, Keys explained, "Since then, it's been a big weight off my shoulders, and I'm playing really free. More than anything, I'm really, really enjoying my time on the court. I think that's been a massive part of why I have been playing well. If someone had told me right before Wimbledon, this was where I would be [now], I wouldn't have believed them."

The road back toward the top proved even more arduous and uncertain for the 24-year-old Stephens. Sidelined for 11 months and with her foot in a protective boot following surgery, Stephens hung out with her family, watched her little cousin's soccer games, and attended weddings and baby showers. But, like Keys, the time away renewed her passion for tennis. "I couldn't walk, I couldn't do all the things that I wanted to do," Stephens recalled. "I loved my time off, but when I got back to playing tennis, it was like: 'This is where I want to be. This is what I love doing. This is fun, this is great, actually.'"

Like Keys, Stephens was surprised by her sizzling summer. After her ranking plummeted to No. 957 on July 31, Stephens suddenly surged to the semis at Toronto and Cincinnati and then all the way to the final at Flushing Meadows. Before upsetting two-time U.S. champion Venus Williams in a thrilling, fluctuating 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 semifinal, Stephens recalled her long journey: "I said eventually: 'I'm going to beat somebody and then I'm going to beat two people in a row.' Did I think it was going to be the next week? No. I just stayed positive. And then, yeah, look, there, semi-final, semi-final, semi-final. I couldn't really ask for a better way to come back."

Stephens, whose late father was an NFL running back for the New England Patriots and her mother an all-American swimmer at Boston University, ranks among the elite athletes on the tour. But aside from making the 2013 Australian Open semis after shocking Serena, she seldom lived up to her immense potential. Even after edging Anastasija Sevastova 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 in the US Open quarterfinals, all-time great Chris Evert commented, "Sloane has not shown us her best tennis yet. She was about 80% [of that] against Sevastova."

It took a 6-0 thrashing in the second set by Venus, whom Stephens called "our leader," to bring out the absolute best in Stephens. After she broke Venus's serve to open the third set and then staved off two break points herself to lead 2-0, Evert said, "Sloane used to look nonchalant when she was losing. Now she is showing more fight than she ever has." Locked in mentally, Stephens flashed her athleticism when serving at 4-5. She dashed forward to conjure a super forehand angle winner and then ended a grueling point brilliantly with an improvised backhand down-the-line passing shot. A pinpoint-precise lob over the outstretched 6'1" Venus highlighted Stephens' serve break at love in the next game. With all the momentum, she easily closed out the match minutes later.

For both Stephens and Keys, it was more a matter of when - not if - they would reach major finals and win major titles. In 2009, Keys became the seventh youngest player to win a WTA main draw match at 14 years and 48 days, and the youngest since prodigy Martina Hingis in 1994. Soon after, she beat Serena in a World TeamTennis set, prompting Serena to tab her as "a future No. 1." Last year Keys became the first American to debut in the Top 10 since Serena in 1999. She notched her most impressive victories this fortnight over No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina 7-6, 1-6, 6-4, after being down a service break in the deciding set, and over No. seed 20 CoCo Vandeweghe 6-1, 6-2. The latter match was half of the first all-American women semifinals at the US Open since 1981.

In, by far, the biggest match of their lives, Keys and Stephens would have to deal with the most pressure they've ever faced. How would they process the ambivalent feelings that come from trying to beat a close friend? And how would they handle their fears and anxieties in their first Grand Slam final in the most capacious tennis-only stadium in the world?

The answers came soon enough. Keys, who had held her serve 19 straight times and belted a tournament-leading 34 aces going into the final, self-destructed at 2-all. Nervously committing three unforced errors on her forehand, her other major weapon, she quickly lost her serve to trail 3-2. When Keys made three more unforced forehand errors to give Stephens the next game, the dye was cast. Keys had no Plan B. What had been billed as a clash between great offense versus great defense was turning into a mismatch between a wild, erratic slugger and a savvy, high-percentage counterpuncher. After the first seven games, Keys committed 17 unforced errors. Stephens, incredibly, made none!

Down 6-3, 4-0, Keys had a last-ditch chance when she led love-40 on Stephens's serve. The stunned crowd had been subdued throughout the disappointing final but now had something to cheer about. Stephens fought off the brief threat with winners off her forehand, backhand, and volley, holding serve four points later. As Evert said, "Sloane has the complete game, and she's showing it now."

Keys battled valiantly in the last game, extending Stephens to four championship points. But the 6-3, 6-0 shellacking will go down as one of the most lopsided major finals in history. And if rankings were kept for nervousness, Keys' fiasco is right down there with the tearful mental meltdowns of Sabine Lisicki in the 2013 Wimbledon final and Dinara Safina in the 2009 French final.

Stephens celebrated her first Grand Slam title with a broad "Yes, I just did it" smile and her arms outstretched. She then met her good friend at the net for a long, warm embrace. As Keys unabashedly wept, Stephens consoled her. Minutes later, the winner did something rare: she sat down on the courtside chair beside the loser. Together they chatted, smiled, and shared a couple of laughs.

Virtually no one predicted the 83rd-ranked Stephens would become only the second unseeded woman to win the tournament in the Open Era. But it wasn't the first time she was greatly underestimated.

In a heartfelt speech to the crowd, Stephens talked about her mother, Sybil Smith. "We've been on such a journey together. My mom is incredible. I think parents don't get enough credit," said Stephens, getting emotional.

"When I was 11 years old, my mom took me to a tennis academy," she recalled. "One of the directors there told my mom I'd be lucky if I was a Division 2 [college] player. And I got a scholarship [there]. So any parent who ever supports their child, that child could be me one day. So parents, never give up on your kids. And if they want to do something, always encourage them." Her mother mouthed, "I love you," and the appreciative spectators responded with a rousing ovation.

After presenting the trophies and a $3.7 million check to Stephens, Katrina Adams, chairman, CEO, and president of the United States Tennis Association, sounded another theme. "How exciting for our sport to see two new faces here in the final of the US Open," said Adams, a former world-class player and an African-American herself. "For me, personally, I couldn't be more proud to be here to see you, the future of diverse tennis."

Billie Jean King, the great 1960-70s champion, women's tennis pioneer, and human rights activist after whom the USTA National Tennis Center was named, likes to say, "To be it, you have to see it."

On this sunny afternoon, the sports world saw two more exemplars of the racial diversity Arthur Ashe foresaw nearly 30 years ago.

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