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The U.S. Open Finals Gave Us a New Champion and an Old One

But the triumphs of Sloane Stephens and Rafael Nadal didn’t provide a clear picture about what to expect in 2018

Sloane Stephens and Rafael Nadal Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After two weeks of uncertainty about the direction of the tournament and tennis at large, both of the singles draws at the U.S. Open ended quietly.

Saturday’s women’s final promised to be a rivalrous affair with clear implications for the future. The matchup was between Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, two young Americans who have been closely monitored for years and were finally emerging from injury-plagued stretches to compete for a title that neither expected to win this season.

Stephens, 24, burst into the public eye years ago; her performance as a 19-year-old at the 2013 Australian Open, where she beat Serena Williams en route to a semifinal appearance, marked her as a usurper, a future star. But once the world began watching, Stephens wasn’t spectacular, she was just decent. She reached only one major quarterfinal in the four years between that tournament in Melbourne and this U.S. Open. Stephens entered the tournament ranked 83rd in the world, and as you have surely heard, was ranked 934th a few weeks before, after spending much of the season battling a foot injury.

But this year’s majors have been wide open, and not just to players in and around the WTA’s top tier. An unseeded Jelena Ostapenko won Roland-Garros, after all. So Stephens’s progress through the U.S. Open was heartening, but not necessarily shocking. Chaos reigned. After her operatic prime-time match against Venus Williams, though — decided by a razor-thin margin in the third set (after a very confusing 6–1, 0–6 split of the opening two sets) — Stephens showed that she wasn’t just a beneficiary of circumstances. She’d come to take the title on her own terms.

Keys, on the other hand, was one of the players on the periphery of the WTA’s top tier. But she, too, had been plagued with injuries during the season. Until winning a tournament at Stanford in early August, Keys had fewer than 10 match wins on the year.

Still, Keys came into the tournament seeded 15th; it was no big surprise to see her in the final. Keys is just 22, and she may be the heaviest hitter on tour. Her ground strokes can whistle at speeds over a hundred miles an hour, and it has long been expected that she would contend for majors as soon as all of the necessary pieces came together. But, as my colleague Katie Baker noted on Friday, even Keys and her team didn’t expect things to work out so soon. After a throttling of Coco Vandeweghe in the semifinals, it seemed the prodigy was finally ascending.

Keys and Stephens, who are close friends, have contrasting styles: Keys is a forward-leaning striker while Stephens splits her time between counterpunching and flat-out grinding. The final itself turned out to be the least interesting part of the story. Stephens didn’t need to play the spectacular defense she showed against Venus. Keys’s vaunted strokes sprayed errantly early, and her composure started to drift away with each error. The younger American ended up misfiring five times as many balls as her opponent. The match was over in 61 minutes: Stephens won, 6–3, 6–0.

Stephens will jump to 17th in the world rankings on Monday, and once again the eyes of the tennis world will be trained on her. With the power structure of the WTA entirely unclear, there is no reason to believe that she can’t string together a run like this again. And despite her nervous showing in the final, Keys, too, will have her fair share of trophy shots in the future. For now, uncertainty still wears a crown, but Stephens or Keys may wrestle away the throne soon.

There are few things that will be memorable about the men’s singles draw at this year’s U.S. Open. The supposedly quickly rising kids disappointed, and the top seed won without facing a top-shelf opponent. The most notable aftereffect is that for the rest of time, we will all have to use the phrase “major finalist Kevin Anderson.”

Anderson, a 6-foot-8 South African with a big serve and slightly better-than-expected mobility, was once ranked 10th in the world, but had advanced past the fourth round of a major only once in his career. The draw had Anderson on a collision course with fellow giant Alexander Zverev, but after the German was upset in the second round, Anderson instead faced an exhausted Borna Coric in the third. En route to the final, the two highest seeds Anderson faced were American Sam Querrey (17th) and Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta (12th).

We arrived at this final, with a 31-year-old major neophyte facing a healthy and locked-in Rafa Nadal, not because Anderson was playing godly tennis, but because three (Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka) of the Big Five had withdrawn, and nearly every promising youngster exited early. The South African was what came out of a draw that The New Yorker’s Louisa Thomas described as a “trash fire.” Basically, it was pretty clear before Sunday what type of match we were going to see.

Early on, there was a glimmer of hope for those pulling for an upset. A defiant Anderson served missiles at Nadal, who lined up for each return point so far behind the baseline that the television cameras couldn’t capture his entire body over the court’s back wall. With the world no. 1 momentarily perplexed, Anderson stood on even ground.

But Nadal quickly broke in his second return game, and was untroubled for the rest of the match. The Spaniard has added some punch to his serve this year, and it showed. On his return, Nadal began to read Anderson’s serve and drag him into long rallies. In the second and third sets Nadal broke quickly and early, and Anderson was helpless in his attempts to get back on serve. He was obviously and totally outclassed. The match took longer than 61 minutes, but it felt shorter than Stephens’s rout on Ashe from the previous night. Nadal bit into his 16th major trophy after a 6–3, 6–3, 6–4 win. “I can just say thank you very much to life for that opportunity,” Nadal said after the match. Take that however you may.

In 2018 and beyond, the ATP will need its supporting cast to step up. Nadal won’t be around forever, and even if he is, he won’t be able to single-handedly save matches like this.