NEW YORK — That mighty hug …
It lasted 19 seconds, the video indicates.
It gladdened people up and down the Internet and beyond, and it surely irked others.
We all know some others.
Among other things, though, the hug between champion Sloane Stephens and her longstanding friend, runner-up Madison Keys, after their U.S. Open final on Saturday, deepened the idea of Stephens as a world-class hugger.
After all, it was Stephens who forged a robust four-second hug in a circumstance that hardly could be more different, at Wimbledon in 2016. It was the third round, often a semi-anonymous matter. It was a match against somebody else who once won a U.S. Open as Stephens just did: Svetlana Kuznetsova. Stephens held a one-set lead and a 5-2, third-set lead. She lost both and all. Down to her last morsel of hope, she challenged a line call just after match point. Kuznetsova turned around to watch the video, which showed the call had been accurate, and that Kuznetsova had won, 6-7 (7-1), 6-2, 8-6.
She turned back around to find Stephens, a once-promising player and 2013 Australian Open semifinalist who had just finished her fifth straight Grand Slam without surpassing any third round. Kuznetsova also found Stephens with arms wide open. There ensued an excellent hug, followed by Kuznetsova imploring the crowd, as it applauded the winner per custom, to applaud Stephens, as well.
“Was good quality?” Kuznetsova asked of the hug, knowing the answer, and while third-round losers with rankings outside the top five often don’t meet with reporters afterward, Stephens did meet to discuss the hug.
“I wouldn’t say I think about what I’m going to do when I lose, but I think it’s just something that I like to see, when other people gracefully take their loss, or whatever you might want to call it,” she said. “I think that’s part of competition, and I think that’s part of being an extreme competitor. And some people aren’t like that. Some people are very angry. Some people don’t really care after they lose. There’s just so many different types of people. But I think for myself, personally, ‘You played awesome today. You made me better. You made me raise my level.’ I have respect for her, and her game, respect for the game of tennis. There’s no negative to take away from what happened today.”
And: “I mean, sometimes it’s just nice to be able to [say], like, ‘Yeah, you beat me, but even in a loss I can be proud of myself and I can be happy for my opponent.’ I don’t know. I just love her.”
At that moment, it became possible to feel sorry for Stephens, her Grand Slam career idling, and to hope that somehow, she might win a Grand Slam someday, even while guessing she wouldn’t. (Ha.)
Said Kuznetsova, “Great, great sportsmanship.”
Said one pundit, later that evening, on the sidewalk, up the road from the All England club, “Oh, I hated the hug.”
It’s true, there’s something of a debate about such matters. Maybe we all know people who disapproved of a protracted hug among rivals, as Stephens and Keys displayed on Saturday. Maybe we know people who also disapprove of Stephens’s further gesture, the one where she went over to sit next to Keys while the officials set up the post-match ceremony. “There’s no one else in the world that would have meant as much as it did,” Keys said afterward.
Maybe we even like some of the people who dislike all that. Maybe they’re in our lives, and we don’t want to omit them just because they’re misguided and lunkheaded and churlish and miserable and sad and desperate and lost and bleak and loveless and hopeless and charmless and nitwitted and malcontented and wrong. But they’re there.
When, just last month, Karen Crouse of the New York Times commended the three-time golf-major champion Jordan Spieth in a column because he waited until after his round to hug and congratulate PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas, one commenter wrote, “Can’t imagine Hogan hugging any competitor. Ever.”
Whichever side that commenter took, we all know those who prefer the manufactured cowboy ethic.
Others of us prefer drinks.
Question to Keys: “Is there any chance you would join her celebration tonight?”
Keys: “Yeah, of course, I would one-thousand percent go. She can buy me drinks. All of the drinks.”
Question to Stephens: “Madison dropped some not-so-subtle hints she was invited to your celebration tonight and you’ll be buying her drinks.”
Stephens: “Yes, a lot of them, apparently. Yes, we are having a little celebration, and she is coming, so …”
It’s hard to pull off a 19-second hug, even with a spouse, so this 19-second hug might go down as the most memorable thing about this 2017 U.S. Open. It is not an entirely new phenomenon, considering that Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert played a towering rivalry as friends after some early snags, or considering Nicklaus-Palmer, or Nicklaus-Watson. The great Division III football coach Frosty Westering, of Pacific Lutheran in Tacoma, Wash., used to demand that his players help up opponents, because only through opponents had his players known what he called “the privilege of playing.” But Stephens-Keys has become, overnight, the reigning hug standard, while Stephens has become both a world-class hugger and a Grand Slam champion.
Besides, to play someone you’re willing to hug for 19 seconds requires sturdier backbone than to play someone you’d rather not hug at all. Those who dislike it always did have a side in the argument, a side that stated that hugging someone as Stephens did Kuznetsova actually impaired the capacity to strafe them as the job mandates. They lost that argument on Saturday, just as they succumbed to that old American habit of forever mistaking strength for weakness, and weakness for strength.