Even tennis, a sport where comebacks are the coin of the realm, has rarely seen a revival quite like this. Stephens, a 24-year-old with an incandescent grin and a potent blend of offensive and defensive skills, was ranked 957th early last month after having returned to the tour in July.
But on Saturday, she beat the No. 15-seeded Madison Keys, her American contemporary, 6-3, 6-0, in just 61 minutes in the U.S. Open final.
Laughing outside the locker room shortly after Stephens’s victory, Murray said he would not have believed in May this result would come.
“You always expect to play well and try hard and give a good effort, which she has been doing very consistently,” he said. “So long as you do that, you put yourself in a position to win, but to win this many matches so soon, she’s blessed.”
You do earn a lot of your luck in tennis, and Stephens could have been overwhelmed by the occasion. Saturday’s match was the first major singles final for both Stephens and Keys, who have been friends since their junior days and have played on Fed Cup teams and Olympic teams together.
They practiced together before this tournament, too, but this match was an entirely new level of shared experience. Stephens’s resurgence has been astonishing in its speed, but Keys has made a convincing comeback of her own after two operations on her left wrist in the past 10 months.
Tabbed as a future No. 1 by Serena Williams, Keys, 22, is arguably the most powerful player in women’s tennis. Stephens is arguably the quickest, but she also has ample punching power.
And while the explosive Keys struggled with her emotions and her accuracy, Stephens often looked as if she could have been raking sand in a Zen garden. She prevailed convincingly in a duel that has a chance to be replayed on the game’s big stages in the years to come.
“I should just retire now,” Stephens said during the trophy ceremony. “I told Maddie I’m never going to be able to top this. I mean, talk about a comeback.”
Maddie is Keys’s nickname, and though their first Grand Slam final was no classic, as the huge-hitting Keys repeatedly made errors from the baseline, it was certainly a touching occasion after it ended.
When Keys’s final forehand struck the net, Stephens lifted her arms in triumph. But she soon tempered her celebration, walking to the net and sharing an extended embrace and intense conversation with Keys, who was crying as they spoke cheek to cheek.
“I didn’t play my best tennis today and was disappointed, but Sloane, being the great friend she was, was very supportive,” Keys said, still fighting tears at the ceremony. “If there is someone I have to lose to today, I’m glad it’s her.”
Stephens later sat down next to Keys before the trophy ceremony, something the Williams sisters have done for years after their major finals. Stephens and Keys chatted and joked with each other, hiding their mouths from the cameras with towels.
“I told her I wish there could have been a draw,” Stephens said later.
Stephens, who will rise to No. 17 from No. 83 on Monday, is the first American woman not named Williams to win a Grand Slam singles title since Jennifer Capriati at the 2002 Australian Open. Stephens also joins a prestigious group of African-American winners of the U.S. championship, which began with Althea Gibson 60 years ago.
Stephens was born in Plantation, Fla., in 1993, the year before Venus Williams turned professional (Serena Williams would follow suit in 1995). But in her early years, Stephens was a fan of the powerful and extroverted Kim Clijsters, who was one of the many who congratulated Stephens in person on Saturday.
Stephens’s mother, Sybil Smith, was a leading swimmer at Boston University. Her father was John Stephens, who was a running back with the New England Patriots. Her parents split early in her life, and she had little contact with her father.
But she was re-establishing a relationship with him before he died in a car accident in September 2009. Stephens was playing in the junior event at the U.S. Open at the time. She left the tournament to attend the funeral and then returned.
She has long been considered a potential Grand Slam champion and has worked with some of tennis’s leading coaches, including Nick Saviano, Paul Annacone, Thomas Hogstedt and, through the United States Tennis Association, David Nainkin.
She reached the Australian Open semifinals in 2013, beating Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. But she struggled with consistency and played with a style that many analysts considered too defensive. She has come into her own by finding a renewed passion for the game after an 11-month injury layoff.
“There’s a different look in her eyes since she came back,” said Chris Evert, a former No. 1 player who has known Stephens since she was a junior player.
She is happy in her personal life with her boyfriend, the American soccer star Jozy Altidore, and she is projecting a new calm on the court. But calm is not nearly enough to defuse big talents like Venus Williams and Keys, the two Americans whom Stephens beat in the final two rounds in New York.
Stephens is also striking the right balance between defense and offense, rarely overhitting and putting ample topspin on her big forehand, which gives her plenty of margin for error.