NEW YORK— “Breathe. Swing. Move your feet.” Is there a T-shirt with those words on it yet?
That was the extremely simple, extremely effective advice that Sloane Stephens’ coach, Kamau Murray, gave to her before she walked onto the court for her first Grand Slam final on Sunday.
Those three commands worked because they reminded Stephens that, whatever nerves she might be feeling, her job on this day wasn’t a complicated one. The fact that she was facing one of the sport’s hardest hitters in Madison Keys gave the speedy, steady Sloane a decisive advantage: If worst came to worst, and she began to wilt under the pressure, she could always use her legs and keep making balls, two things that she can do in her sleep. It would be Keys’ job to take the risks.
“I was very nervous,” Stephens said, “but I knew that whatever I was feeling, she was probably feeling, too.”
It turned out that Stephens had nothing to worry about. She quickly settled into an imperturbable groove a few feet behind the baseline. She hit heavy and deep, moved Keys from side to side and returned whatever rockets were launched at her. No need to pull any triggers or aim for any lines or try any high-degree-of-difficulty finesse shots. Sloane’s first two service games were love holds that took a little more than a minute.
Instead it was Keys who had the complicated job of trying to win points outright. Her coach, Lindsay Davenport, told her that she wanted her to “take a lot of balls out of the air.” While Keys can pummel a swing volley, it’s a shot that requires a player to be loose rather than tight. With Stephens getting everything back, Keys said she only grew more anxious as she tried, and failed, to figure out a strategy for winning points.
“I was obviously nervous all morning,” Keys said. “Sloane’s a tough opponent to play when, you know, you’re not making a lot of balls. But then, at the same time, she’s not going to miss, either. I didn’t know what to do once I got on the court, which just intensifies those nerves even more.”
By the fifth game, Keys’ best shot, her forehand, had deserted her. She missed three of them and was broken, and missed three more to lose the next game. Keys, whose left leg was heavily taped, was moving sluggishly and playing without a perceptible plan.
“I think at the end of a Slam, whoever is still on the court is physically going to be feeling something,” she said. “I definitely think my play today came down to nerves and all of that, and I just don’t think I handled the occasion perfectly.”
Keys would never settle in. At the same time, Stephens only got better. She didn’t just hit the ball back in the court; as her confidence grew, she began to dictate points and show off some delicate touch around the net. And she betrayed no nerves at all down the stretch. Down 0-40 at 4-0 in the second, with the fans begging Keys to make it a match, Stephens calmly won five straight points. Her 6-3, 6-0 win was a masterpiece of controlled tennis.
“I just went out and competed and focused on every ball,” said Stephens, who made six unforced errors compared to 30 for Keys. “That’s all I focused on.”
In winning the US Open, though, it turned out that Sloane was just getting warmed up. When Keys’ last forehand landed in the net, Stephens covered her mouth and kept her emotions in check. She saved them, instead, for the long hug she shared with her old friend at the net. “Tough one,” she told Keys as they embraced. A few minutes later, as the two waited for the trophy ceremony to begin, Stephens joined Keys on the sideline. As they talked, Madison’s tears dried and she began to laugh.
“Sloane, being the great friend that she is, was very supportive,” said Keys, who planned to make Stephens buy her a drink or three on Saturday night.
Having won the match and consoled her friend, it was on to act three for Sloane: entertaining the press. This is one area where she has traditionally lived up to her potential, and she didn’t disappoint this time.
What was she thinking after the last point?
“Wow, how insane!” Sloane said. “I actually won the US Open. I was just a little bit like …Wow.”
What did she do to calm her nerves beforehand?
“I was literally in my room twiddling my thumbs … I literally was looking at car reviews on Autotrader … I was just looking at safety reviews, honestly. That’s kind of weird, but that’s what I was doing.”
How did she feel about making just six unforced errors?
“I made six unforced errors in the whole match?” a shocked Sloane cried. “Shut the front door. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before. Oh my God. That’s a stat.”
Does winning this Slam make her hungry for more?
“Of course, girl! Did you see that check that lady handed me? Like, yes. Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will. Man…”
Sloane, in short, was in her glory. In a matter of a few hours, she had proven herself to a be a tennis player of the highest caliber, the best friend a woman could ask for and a born comedienne.
If it was surreal for us to think of her as a US Open champion, it seemed to be doubly unbelievable for her. But by the end of her presser, Stephens was already beginning to grasp the significance of it. In her own Sloane way, of course.
“I think it will be super cool,” she said when she was asked what she thought it would be like to look back on this day. “I think one day I’m going to, like, be able to show my kids that I won the US Open. Like, how many people can say that? Not very many. And they already engraved my name on the locker.
“Like, hello. This is awesome.”