On a day when Florida, which each of them has called home, braced for the attack of Hurricane Irma, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys played for our country's national championship in tennis. Keys is 22 and moved to Boca Raton when she was 9 years old. Stephens was born and raised in Plantation, Fla. A day like Saturday, in the stadium in New York City named after Arthur Ashe, was the dream for both of them, because it is the dream for all American tennis kids. So this was a dream day for both of them, at this nightmare time for Florida. One that became a perfect day, like a perfect second set, for Sloane Stephens in the end.
Of course there is no timetable for these days, the way there is no timetable, other than the hurricane season, for this kind of wrath and destruction and tragedy from nature. So on this first great championship day in tennis for both of them, they played this championship match on the weekend of Hurricane Irma.
Stephens was better. By a lot. But even when it was over, after tears at the net from Keys, you saw the two of them sitting together and laughing before the trophy presentation. One more moment of grace from sports on this day, from a couple of Florida tennis kids.
"If I had to lose to someone today, I'm glad it's her," Keys said.
They had played this match, in a setting that must have felt like the longest possible distance from Florida, and did not just become heirs to Serena Williams and Venus Williams, but became heirs to Arthur Ashe, and the great Althea Gibson, who once came out of South Carolina and became this country's first African-American major champion. Althea won our national championship at Forest Hills. She won Wimbledon. And now in American tennis, we have seen all the immense history made by the Williams sisters, but we have seen Stephens and Keys play an Open final against each other at Ashe Stadium on Saturday.
But the backdrop on this particular day, the context, wasn't just tennis history, from two young women who grew up in tennis in Florida. It was this hurricane.
It was Irma, coming for Florida the way Harvey came for Houston, with another hurricane coming out of the Atlantic Ocean behind Irma. And all tennis could do on this day, all sports could do, was provide a respite from watching all the reporting, from South Beach and Palm Beach, from Fort Myers and Naples and Tampa. And the Florida Keys.
There was so much talk about the Florida history of these two players coming into this match. And the Williams sisters have spent a lot of their own lives in Florida, and even once trained for Wimbledon on grass courts belonging to Jack Nicklaus at his home north of Palm Beach. But for the last days leading up to the final, and with Irma scheduled to hit Florida hardest late Saturday night and into Sunday morning, there was only the coverage of this storm, the pictures of people fleeing their homes and fleeing their state, and maybe leaving lives behind.
But for this one afternoon, a long way from Florida, there was this match. Sloane Stephens, whose late father John was a Patriots running back and whose mother was a college swimmer, came out hot and Keys came out nervous, and won the first set, 6-3. She held serve at the start of the second set, and then broke to 2-0 with another passing shot, a hot, precise crosscourt forehand that Keys waved at like a batter waving at strike three. She held to 3-0. Now she was that close to doing what Althea Gibson had done and Serena and Venus, and the great Arthur Ashe back in the 1960s when this country's championship was played at Forest Hills on grass.
It was Stephens, through the first dozen games of the women's final, doing what the Williams sisters had always done at Ashe, turning defense into offense. Always on these days, there is someone who seems made for the stage and the setting and stakes and circumstances. And so far it was Stephens, who had come all the way back from surgery on her left foot, who was doing all of that at Ashe. She was playing the kind of tennis she had played at the end of a wonderful semifinal against Venus on Thursday night.
When it was over against Venus, she had said this about what it was like to be away from tennis:
"It was just kind of, like, eye-opening … When I got back to playing tennis, it was, like, this is where I want to be. This is what I love doing."
They were both still hurt, Stephens and Keys, at the year's first major in Australia. Keys was joking after beating Coco Vandeweghe in her own semifinal that no one in this world would have thought in January that the two of them would be playing the women's final at the Open. But now here they were, with Stephens being the one to play the match of her life.
She got ahead 4-0 in the second set. Keys had three break points. Stephens got out of them. Got out of the game. Now she was a game away from winning the Open. It was 5:15 p.m. in New York. At the 5-0 break, you could switch to The Weather Channel, see one of the reporters on the ground in Florida talking about how by now, most people had evacuated the Florida Keys, where Irma was supposed to hit Florida first, whether it was now supposed to be on a westerly track or not.
It had started for Stephens in Plantation, north of Miami, maybe 200 miles north of the Keys. Now playing Keys for the Open. The first match point for her came a couple of moments later, a chance to win the Open with a love set in the second the way Garbine Muguruza had at Wimbledon against Venus. She dunked a forehand into the net. Then came a second match point. They played this long, amazing point, slugging it out from the baseline. Keys won it. Stephens missed a backhand. Keys had a point to at least get a game in the second set, just one. She missed a backhand. Stephens took Keys nearly over to Citi Field with a forehand. A third championship point. Keys put the ball into the net and Stephens had won the Open.
She looked surprised for a moment, but shouldn't have been, not the way she had just played at Ashe. She really had come as close as she could to throwing a perfect game. Then she was hugging her friend Madison Keys at the net, as Keys was crying, and you could see Stephens telling her, "You'll be back."
Then, Stephens was in the stands and with her coach, and her mother, and she was the one crying as she hugged her mother. Didn't change a thing back in Florida. Sports never does. But the young woman from Plantation, on the eve of a terrible, nightmare day back in her home state, had provided this dream hour of tennis. A day of grace -- "Days of Grace" was the title of Arthur's book -- for a Florida girl.