Not Even Nadal Saw This Coming, Stephens Easy Winner

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Published on September 11 2017 6:24 am
Last Updated on September 11 2017 6:25 am

By ESPN

In 2008, he won two Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal, and finished the year ranked No. 1 in the world for the first time in his career. He won the French Open without dropping a set and beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon in a nearly five-hour marathon considered by many to be the greatest match in tennis history.

Two years later, after retiring in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open with a knee injury, Nadal won three consecutive Slams and more than $10 million in prize money.

On paper, the first nine months of 2017 might not stack up against either of those seasons. This was not an Olympic year, and despite winning two Slams and making the final in three, Nadal, 31, started his year with the bitter taste of an opportunity lost in Melbourne. But 16 years into his professional career, 2017 might be his most meaningful yet.

On Sunday, Nadal beat 28th-seeded Kevin Anderson 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 to capture his 16th career Grand Slam title.

"Of course, is a very special year, no?" Nadal said afterward. "[I went] a couple of years without winning Slams, couple of years with problems. After couple of years without competing at this very high, high level, very happy to be back -- and emotional year for me.

"And as I said before, thanks to all the people that help me every day. I have a great team and a great family that supports me and believe in me, and that's a great help. Without them, of course is not impossible, but almost."

The significance of this season is impossible to sum up with a stat sheet alone. Coming off a 2016 season in which he suffered his second wrist injury in three seasons and was forced to withdraw from the French Open after the second round, Nadal's 10th win at Roland Garros in June was especially sweet. It was his first Grand Slam title since the 2014 French.

After struggling through knee pain that has followed him throughout his career, and losing in the fourth round at Wimbledon, Nadal made the quarterfinals at Cincinnati two weeks before his brilliant US Open run and regained the No. 1 ranking for the first time in more than three years.

And let's not forget the rekindling of an all-time great rivalry with Roger Federer, who won the two Slams that Nadal did not.

But what has made this season even more meaningful is that while Nadal promises to play as long as his body will allow, the most important man in his camp announced earlier this season that this will be his last.

Toni Nadal, Nadal's uncle, a former pro tennis player, has been by his nephew's side since he put a racket in Rafa's hand at age 3, coaching him through juniors and on to the ATP. Uncle Toni suggested his nephew learn the game left-handed, despite not being a natural lefty, and Rafa stuck with it.

Who Nadal would be without his uncle by his side for the past 28 years is impossible to imagine. As his peers have seen coaching change after coaching change, Uncle Toni has remained a constant in Rafael's player's box. Until now.

In February, the elder Nadal said he would step down as his nephew's coach at the end of this season to oversee the Rafa Nadal Academy in Manacor, Spain, coach the next generation of players, and spend more time with his wife and children. "That will be great for my academy, and will be great for the kids," said Toni Nadal, 57.

Entering New York, the Nadal duo knew this would be their last US Open together, the final Slam at which the younger Nadal could look up into the stands during a match and see the comforting sight of the man who taught him the game.

"Probably without him I would never be playing tennis, and it's great I had somebody like him pushing me all the time," Nadal said.

"I think because he was strong and had great motivation to practice with me since I was a kid, I have been able to get through all these problems I've had in my career in terms of injuries. That makes me stronger, and I just can say thank you very much to him, because, for sure, he's one of the most important people in my life."


Stephens-Keys Postmatch Emotion Steals 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.

"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."