Breakthroughs, Normalcy and Resurrections at the 2017 U.S. Open

A recap of one of the most defining U.S. Open’s in recent memory.

Updated: Sept. 12, 2017 • 8:42 AM ET

Rafael Nadal claimed his 16th Grand Slam title at the 2017 U.S. Open.

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,' wrote Charles Dickens in the historical novel "A Tale of Two Cities". The last two weeks at the U.S. Open were by no means a scene in a Victorian novel, yet the implications of Dickens’ tale apply nonetheless.


On the women’s side, a star was born: Sloane Stephens. She won her first Grand Slam title and entered the tournament unseeded. On the men’s side, one of the four usual suspects (The Big Four) reigned supreme: Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard won his 16th Grand Slam overall and his third championship at the Open. 


And while Stephens broke through and Nadal did what Nadal does, win another Grand Slam, other players resurrected their careers in front of millions who either visited the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center or watched from afar. 


Those were things that made this U.S. Open an event to remember. 


That Serena Williams was out preparing to and delivering her first child. That Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka took a bye. Sure, these elite players were missed. Their absences cast an initial shadow over the Open before a single tennis ball was hit.  


But boy on opening night, those circumstances were blown away as fast as the winds from recent hurricanes. Maria Sharapova waltzed into Arthur Ashe Stadium to a hearty round of welcome-back applause. She hadn’t played in a Grand Slam for 18 months. Instead, she served time for a doping suspension and spent more time recovering from summer pop-up injuries that threatened her appearance in New York. 


The Russian and former world No. 1 took out Simona Halep, the promising second seed, that night. The win for Sharapova doused Halep’s hopes of leaving the Open with the No. 1 ranking, which was up for grabs by eight women when the event began. 


“Despite not playing a lot of matches coming into this, it almost seemed like I had no right to win this match today,” Sharapova said after her 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory.


Sharapova powered and screeched her way to the second week, a remarkable achievement for a five-time major champion that was not match tough. Her exit was expected, but the fact that the U.S.T.A granted her a wild card to the main draw and scheduled all her matches in Arthur Ashe Stadium rubbed some fans and many players the wrong way. Nonetheless, she pocketed $473,000 and boosted her ranking to 103.

Sloane Stephens claimed her first Grand Slam title at the 2017 U.S. Open.

As much as Sharapova’s chilly disposition turned people off, Americans Madison Keys and Stephens warmed fans and the entire tournament up. The semifinals featured an all-American lineup: veteran and leader of the pack, 37-year-old and seeded No. 9 Venus Williams; No. 20 seed Coco Vandeweghe; Keys, the 15th seed; and Stephens, the lone unseeded player. It was the first time in 32 years that four American women reached the semifinals of a major. 


“Even though we’re out here individually, it’s really a team sport,” Vandeweghe told fans inside Ashe after advancing to the semifinals.”


Keys took out Vandeweghe in a lopsided encounter that the tall Californian would rather forget. Keys, though, was all smiles. The match was one of her best. Stephens’ dismissal of Venus Williams, though, tugged at the hearts of fans. Had she had a pint more of energy, the scoreline might have been different. 


"I'm super happy to be in a Grand Slam final," Stephens said in her post-match press conference after defeating Williams in three sets. "To do it here, obviously, my home slam, is obviously more special. I think this is what every player dreams about. Fortunately but unfortunately, I had to play Venus, but having four Americans in the semifinals, I think that says a lot about American tennis and where we are right now.”


Saturday’s final between Keys and Stephens was a bust. Keys never found her rhythm and was overwhelmed by emotions. As a result, she committed 30 unforced errors. Stephens, though, held steady, running down every shot thrown at her, no matter the pace. 


Yet, their embrace and Keys’ tears at the net, their personal chat before the awards (they covered their mouths so cameras couldn’t barge in), then Stephens’ animated speech, her shock about the amount of money she’d earned, $3.7 million — “That’s a lot of money — oh my god!” — those moments were the best sport has to offer.


Simple. Pure. Athletic. No one was punching an opponent in the head like boxing or mixed martial arts. No one was slithering around to form the best basketball team on the planet. No players were reading and transmitting signals from their Apple watches to coaches.


Nadal’s and Kevin Anderson’s final, even though the Spaniard was heavily favored, also clung to exceptional sportsmanship; plus the resurrection of Anderson’s hopes of a better tennis career at 31 years old after multiple injuries and time away from the game.


"I know we're the same age, but I feel like I've been watching you my whole life," Anderson said during the awards presentation. "You've really been an idol of mine. It's tough playing you.


“You proved it again tonight. You're one of the great ambassadors of our sport."


Anderson, the first South African to play in a major final since Cliff Drysdale in 1965, went on to talk about his journey.


“It's tough when you're injured as a tennis player,” Anderson said. “The competition is so strong. To come back and make my first finals of a grand slam has been a special two weeks." 


Anderson thanked his parents for building a wall in their family’s backyard. It was his introduction to a dream-come-true future in tennis, even if it has been marred with injuries. He seemed to accept them yesterday, standing next to Nadal, who has also been sidelined multiple times but persisted in spring-boarding to the top. 


The retro feel on the men’s side has been courtesy of Nadal and Roger Federer. They split the four Grand Slam titles this year. Federer won the Australian Open for a fifth time and Wimbledon for a record eighth time. Nadal won his 10th Roland Garros, which may never be topped, and the U.S. Open for a third time. These two never seem to fade, and enjoy them while they’re up and running because as sure as the women’s game saw the rise of Stephens, the men’s game is not far behind.


The youngsters are poised.

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