That hug: Stephens-Keys postmatch emotion steals the show

NEW YORK -- The hug.

That is what we will remember about the 2017 US Open women's final. Not the lopsided score first-time Grand Slam champion Sloane Stephens could not have predicted. Or the fact that despite hitting more aces (3-0) and winners (18-10) and playing brilliantly at the net, runner-up Madison Keys managed to win only three games the entire match.

No, long after Stephens dispatched of her friend and compatriot 6-3, 6-0 on Saturday, becoming only the second unseeded player in the Open era to win a Grand Slam, it is not the stats of the one-hour match anyone will be talking about. It is the 20-second, tear-filled embrace that followed the final point that will be burned into the memory of everyone lucky enough to witness it.

AP Photo/Andres Kudacki

Sloane Stephens spent as much time consoling friend and US Open runner-up Madison Keys as she did celebrating her championship.

"Sloane was being a great friend and very supportive," Keys said in her postmatch interview, her eyes still clouded by tears. "If there's someone I had to lose to, I'm glad it's her."

But it wasn't just the hug. It was everything about the postmatch ceremony that captivated the capacity crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium and upstaged all that had taken place the previous two weeks. At first, Stephens was almost reluctant to celebrate her win. At the net, she hugged Keys tightly, rubbed her on the shoulder and whispered into her ear, as heartbroken for her friend as she was thrilled by her own accomplishment.

Then she made her way to her players box and greeted everyone on her team, including a long, emotional embrace with her mother, Sybil Smith. 

"Obviously, my whole life my mom has been very supportive," Stephens said. "She's been in my corner the whole time, and I have had, you know, a lot of ups and a lot of downs and some really low downs. And throughout that, my mom has been there 100 percent with me."

Keys, while disappointed with her performance in the biggest match of her life, smiled and congratulated her opponent; tears of joy for Stephens intermixed with tears of sorrow for her own loss. "I'm really happy for her," Keys said in her postmatch news conference. "To be able to share my first Slam experience with a really close friend, when it's also her first Slam, is a really special moment."

As the two women waited for the trophy ceremony to begin, Stephens stood up from her chair, walked to Keys and sat down in the tournament chair next to her. It was a gesture of sportsmanship as grand as the tournament that preceded it, the winner and loser, giggling and chatting and supporting one another in the biggest moment of their young careers. As they stood together to receive their trophies, it was difficult to spot a dry eye in the crowd.

"I told her I wish there could have been a draw," Stephens said of her postmatch conversation with Keys. "If it was the other way around, I'm sure she would have done the same thing."

Until Saturday, the storyline about the resurgence of American women's tennis had been based largely on the fact that the final four women in New York were American players, three of them in their early 20s, and not about who those players are as individuals.

What casual fans know about Stephens and Keys, they've learned over the past two weeks, but nothing was as telling as what they showed in those moments after the match, setting up a spirited rivalry not unlike Williams-Williams.

"Hopefully we will have many more Slam finals against each other," Keys said.

The difference for fans is that when the Williams sisters face off against one another, they've had nearly 20 years to pick a side. With Stephens and Keys, many of the fans who packed Arthur Ashe Stadium were unable to choose, cheering as loudly when Keys smashed an ace as they did when Stephens lobbed a winner from the net. Up to that point, they had simply been cheering for Americans to advance.

"I'm rooting for Sloane because she seems like she's gunning for it," said 23-year-old Simplee Gittens, who works as a sales specialist at the SoHo Under Armour store when she's not volunteering at the Open. "I also like her because my company sponsors her and she came into the store."

Constanza Morelos, 11, was cheering for Keys, a devoted fan since the 22-year-old signed her oversized tennis ball Friday afternoon and was, "so, so nice and such a good player."

Sarah Arens, who was wearing an American flag scarf and cheering from the 300 level, said she liked Stephens' underdog story and was impressed by her improbable comeback. But like many fans in Ashe, she was really rooting for herself. "I want to see the match go to three sets," Arens said. "I just want to keep watching."

Eight months ago, the idea that either of these women would be crowned US Open champion seemed so impossible even they didn't bother to dream about it. Sidelined with injuries and recovering from surgeries, they watched the Australian Open on TV and then fought to return to the game.

"It's crazy if you think about it," said 13-year-old Sahil Migtal, who traveled to New York from Chicago with his family to watch the Open. "One year ago, they were hurt. Three years ago, they weren't famous. But if you were at the practice courts today, everybody was mobbing Sloane Stephens. You don't pick one. You root for both of them. Then everyone wins."

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