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Sloane Stephens joins elite company with her US Open victory

She is only the fourth African-American woman to win a Grand Slam singles title

NEW YORK — As fans stood to celebrate the new US Open champion, Sloane Stephens turned and stared at her player’s box, thinking about the journey this year that took her from wearing a cast on her broken left foot to hoisting her first Grand Slam trophy.

“I was thinking just wow,” said Stephens, who then walked through the stands to embrace her coach and her mother. “Winning a tournament is extremely special, but winning the US Open, being an American player, is even more incredible.”

On a night where two African-American women not named Williams met in a Grand Slam final for the first time, Stephens put on a clinic in easily handling Madison Keys, 6-3, 6-0, in a match that took just 61 minutes.

Stephens becomes just the fourth African-American woman to win a Grand Slam singles title, following Althea Gibson, Serena Williams and Venus Williams. It capped an incredible journey in which Stephens started the year with the broken foot and fell so far down the WTA rankings that she entered the US Open concerned about whether she’d have exemptions into future tournaments.

“When I had the surgery, I wasn’t thinking I would be anywhere near winning a Grand Slam title, nor did I think I was going to be anywhere near the top 100,” Stephens said. “I was worried about using my protected ranking to get here.”

Stephens’ win, the 15th in her past 17 matches, shows just how wide-open women’s tennis is today as she becomes the fourth different woman to win a Grand Slam title this year. Serena Williams missed most of the year after winning the Australian Open while she was eight weeks pregnant.

The win also caps an incredible year for Stephens, who:

  • Cashes the biggest check of her career, with the winner taking home $3.7 million (Keys won $1.825 million as the runner-up). Stephens’ best earnings year prior to Saturday was 2013, when she earned $1.4 million after advancing to the Australian Open semifinals.
  • Won the title as the No. 83-ranked player in the world, becoming the lowest-ranked player to win a US Open championship (Kim Clijsters was unranked when she won the 2009 title). Stephens is just the third US Open winner from outside the top 10.
  • Reaches the top 20 in WTA rankings with the victory, at No. 17. That’s a 917-spot improvement in just over a month for Stephens, who was ranked No. 934 at the start of August.
  • Had the same number of wins in this year’s US Open (six) than she had in her previous appearances at the tournament combined.

Stephens and Keys shared a long embrace at the end of the match. As the two waited for the trophy presentation, Stephens pulled up a chair next to Keys and the two had a brief conversation.

“We’ve known each other for a long time, and we just wanted to share that moment with each other,” Keys said. “I think what she’s done is absolutely amazing. When she made her semifinal run in Australia, we all saw how great she was. Sloane has always had the talent.”

Winner Sloane Stephens of the United States (left) hugs Madison Keys of the United States at the net after the women’s singles final of the US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Sept. 9 in Flushing, Queens, New York City.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Stephens was clearly the more dominant player against her good friend Keys, who admitted she never felt settled the entire match.

“I was nervous,” Keys said. “Sloane’s a tough opponent to play when you’re not making a lot of balls. It was kind of like I didn’t totally know what to do once I got on the court, which just intensifies the nerves even more.”

Stephens said she was nervous as well, spending a restless Friday night leading into the Saturday afternoon final.

“Everyone was freaking out — my mom was talking about shenanigans, and my coach was talking about shenanigans,” Stephens said. “I had a long time to think about playing in the finals of a Grand Slam. I was literally twiddling my thumbs. … I was looking at car reviews on Auto Trader, that’s how bored I was.”

There were no nerves once she took the court. Stephens demonstrated power and quickness as she crushed Keys’ spirit. In her final match of an impressive two weeks, Stephens committed just six unforced errors.

“Oh my God, that’s a stat,” Stephens said. “I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.”

As she took the media podium with the US Open trophy bearing her name in front of her, Stephens was asked whether the win would give her a greater hunger for another Grand Slam title.

“Did you see the check that lady handed me?” Stephens said. “If that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will.”

Regardless of what happens the rest of her career, Stephens said winning the US Open on Saturday night is life-altering.

“I’m going to totally put this in my bio: US Open champion,” Stephens said. “I think when anyone has a Grand Slam champion in front of their name, it changes things a bit.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.