Just four months ago, 24-year-old Ft. Lauderdale-native Sloane Stephens couldn't run—let alone dart back and forth across a clay court. In July, when she made her official return to the court, she was ranked at 957th among female pro tennis players. Yet, just two days ago, she took home the U.S. Open Grand Slam singles trophy in what might be the most epic comeback in New York U.S. Open history, defeating Madison Keys, 22, in only 61 minutes.
And she did, indeed, make a historic comeback. She was the lowest-ranked player to rebound and win the title in New York since the computer rankings began in 1975, according to the U.S. Open.
Stephens, who made her first U.S. Open appearance in 2009 at just 16 years old, had surgery for a foot injury in January. She couldn't walk until April or actively practice on her feet until May 16, according to the New York Times. That doesn't mean she wasn't practicing at all, though; her coach, Kamau Murray had her on the court hitting balls from a perch on a wooden table or while scooting around the court on a backless wheely office chair. In just a few short months, Stephens rose from her one-footed tennis practices to claim the coveted tennis title, defeating no. 9-seed Venus Williams, no. 16-seed Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, and finally, Keys, who was no. 15-seed. (ICYMI, Venus overcame her own setbacks to play in the U.S. Open in 2013, too.)
Prior to her foot injury, Stephens had a career-high ranking of no. 11 in 2013, but went into the U.S. Open that same year ranked at no. 83. (FWIW, she also beat Serena Williams at just 19 years old in the Australian Open.) This year, since she wasn't seeded (meaning she wasn't in the top 32 female players for the 52-week period before the tournament) and was sidelined by her injury for so long, Stephens said she didn't have any expectations: "It's kind of just, like, just go out and have fun. If I beat somebody, great. If not, I still have a lot of tournaments to use," she told Tennis.com. Turns out, "just having fun" was enough to win her the Open.
"My favorite part of that match was the look afterward when she put her hands on her hips and she was like looking at me and just like, 'Oh my god,'" Murray told the U.S. Open after Sloane's victory. "If I had to verbalize what I think she was thinking, it would be, 'All those days, sitting with you on a court in a chair and a boot with your boring me to death, tossing me a ball.... I trusted the process and you were right.'"
But the post-win moment everyone is talking about isn't a high-five or a fist pump in victory, but a more touching scene of sportsmanship and friendship between players. Stephens and Keys, who are longtime friends and competitors, embraced for a long, tearful hug (19 seconds to be exact). Keys, too, had recently recovered from an injury, having the second of two wrists surgeries just a few months before the match. Though she played Wimbledon in July, even just playing at the Open—let alone in the finals against one of her good friends—was certainly unexpected.
"Honestly, I wouldn't have wanted to play anyone else," said Stephens during the trophy ceremony. "For us both to be here is such a special moment."
"Sloane was being a great friend and very supportive," Keys said in her post-match interview. "If there's someone I had to lose to, I'm glad it's her."
If Stephens' winning smile and serve didn't already have America's hearts, this moving show of integrity should definitely steal 'em.