Sloane Stephens' remarkably rapid rise from a ranking of 957th in early August to US Open champion yesterday began with the slow work of coming back from surgery on her left foot.

After being off tour for 11 months because of her injury, Stephens easily beat her close friend Madison Keys 6-3 6-0 in the first grand slam final for both, becoming only the second unseeded woman to win the tournament in the Open era, which began in 1968.

"I mean, there is no words to describe how I got here - the process it took or anything like that," Stephens said, "because if you told someone this story, they'd be, like, 'That's insane'."

After the operation in January, Stephens could not walk for a month. It was not until May that she would get back on to a tennis court - and even then, she was off her feet, plopped on a wood table at a practice facility at UCLA while aiming her racket at balls tossed by her coach, Kamau Murray.


From there, Murray said, Stephens progressed to sitting while rolling around on an armless office chair. Two weeks later, Stephens finally was able to stand in place while working on her swing. Another two weeks, and she was allowed to move.

"Definitely not fun for her," Murray said.

Nor was it all that fun to face a pal with so much at stake. Stephens, 24, and Keys, 22, have known each other for about a decade, first as juniors, then on tour and as Fed Cup and Olympic teammates. They texted and spoke on the phone early this year, when both sat out the Australian Open because of injuries - Keys had surgery on her left wrist during the off-season, then again in June.

When the match ended after only 61 minutes, with Stephens claiming the last eight games, they met at the net for a long hug.

While waiting for the trophy ceremony to begin, Stephens walked over and plopped herself down in a courtside chair next to Keys, so they could chat side-by-side.

"Sloane is truly one of my favourite people and to get to play her was really special. Obviously I didn't play my best tennis and was disappointed," Keys said. "But Sloane, being the great friend that she is, was very supportive. And if there's someone I have to lose to, I'm glad it's her."

They hammed it up afterwards, too. When Stephens was presented with her US$3.7 million ($5 million) winner's cheque, she grabbed Keys' arm, as if to stop herself from fainting at the sum.

"That's a lot of money," Stephens said. Keys eyed the cheque and teased, "I'll hold it for her."

Keys texted Murray a couple of days before the US Open began to arrange a practice session with Stephens. And the two finalists planned to party together last night.

"She can buy me drinks," Keys said. "All of the drinks."

Keys acknowledged afterwards it was all a bit much for her, and it showed: She had 30 unforced errors.

"I definitely think my play came down to nerves," she said, "and I just don't think I handled the occasion perfectly."

Stephens, meanwhile, made only six unforced errors. Told that during her news conference, Stephens slapped the table, snapped her fingers and said: "Shut the front door. I don't think that's ever happened to me before. Oh, my God. That's a stat."

Stephens' late father, John Stephens, was the 1988 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year for the New England Patriots. And her mother, Sybil Smith, was Boston University's first All-American in women's swimming. In addition to being a super athlete, Stephens seems to thrive in the spotlight: She's now 5-0 in tournament finals.

"I should just retire now," Stephens joked. "I told Maddie I'm never going to be able to top this. I mean, talk about a comeback."

- AP