NEW YORK • Sloane Stephens, the 24-year-old American who made a splash at the 2013 Australian Open and then saw it diminish to ripples, followed finally by the silence of an 11-month absence, completed a mind-boggling five-week rise up the tennis ladder on Saturday.
As she completed a 6-3, 6-0 US Open women's final win over compatriot and friend Madison Keys, 22, it became a game within the game just to observe a single statistic - unforced errors.
At one point midway through the second set, Stephens had three, Keys 25. The numbers ended on six and 30, and they demonstrated how Stephens ignored the circumstances to access her utmost defensive form, more than Keys could do to pursue her customary attack.
"There's no word to describe how I got here," Stephens said later.
Told she had committed only six unforced errors, she blurted: "I made six unforced errors in the whole match? Shut the front door. I don't think that ever happened to me before. Oh, my God. That's a stat. Snaps for me."
She added: "I just went out to compete and ran after every ball."
Thus did the US Open title go to a woman who began August ranked No. 957 and arrived in New York for the US Open as No. 83.
That ranking, of course, was beneath Stephens' long-held quality, even if that quality had not led her back to any Grand Slam semi-final after her burst in 2013 that sent her past Serena Williams and into the Australian Open semi-finals.
It owed to her 11-month absence for foot surgery, during which she spent this January's Australian Open on the couch in a cast.
That left her grateful just to play at Wimbledon, where she lost to Alison Riske in the first round, an outcome she repeated in Washington against Simona Halep.
She proceeded to Toronto, ranked 934th. "I was literally horrified I wasn't going to be able to get into a lot of tournaments," she said.
But she got to the semi-finals in Toronto and Cincinnati, and, by the time she was done on Saturday, she had won a whopping 15 matches in three tournaments in five weeks, all against top 50 players.
"I went from super-excited to be on the court to super-excited I was playing well to super-excited I just won the US Open," she said.
Today, she will hold down a ranking projected at No. 17.
Her US Open run included a stirring win over Venus Williams in the semi-finals and then the 61-minute rout of Keys.
As one last Keys error slammed into the net, Stephens turned to her family and team up in the stands and put her hands on her hips, as if startled. "Just like, wow," she said later. "How insane. I actually won the US Open."
Two months after starting again, she was a Grand Slam champion, and she was sharing, with her longtime friend and opponent, what had to be one of tennis' longest post-match hugs.