Stephens' show of friendship adds gloss to US Open victory
The most memorable part of Saturday's women's US Open final came at the conclusion, as Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys met in a heart-rendingly raw embrace.
In pure tennis terms, the combination of these two first-time Grand Slam finalists - and close friends - had failed to produce much of a contest.
Inhibited by nerves, Keys kept skewing her groundstrokes in all directions apart from the one she intended. Stephens, by contrast, looked as natural on the big stage as a Hollywood star.
But if the mechanics of Stephens' 6-3, 6-0 victory will not stick in the memory, the emotions on show were deeply moving. First, she consoled Keys as they stood locked together at the net. And then, as they waited for the trophies to be awarded, she sat beside her opponent, chatting away merrily until Keys began to grin as well.
It is often said that the women's locker room is less sociable than the men's, yet there was no doubting the mutual respect and affection between America's two brightest young stars.
"Sloane is truly one of my favourite people," Keys said. "I didn't play my best tennis today, and was very disappointed. But Sloane being the great friend that she is was very supportive. If there's someone I have to lose to today I am glad it's her."
In response, Stephens said: "Maddy is one of my best friends on Tour, so I wouldn't have wanted to play anyone else here. I told her I wished it was a draw."
The new champion moves with a silky speed inherited from her late father, once a running back in the NFL, but after surgery on her foot in January, just standing on Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday was a feat in itself.
On May 16, she stood up unaided for the first time, after a 16-week period when she had relied on crutches or a scooter to keep the weight off her leg. Having made her tour comeback at Wimbledon in July, the 24-year-old finished that month ranked No 957 in the world.
Before the players left the court, Stephens drew gales of laughter from the crowd with her eye-popping reaction to the $3.7m cheque. She insisted later that the scale of her pay-day had come as a complete surprise: "Yeah, I didn't know it was that much money." (© Daily Telegraph, London)