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US Open women's final - Madison Keys vs Sloane Stephens preview

Hannah Wilks in Tennis 9 Sep 2017

Madison Keys takes on Sloane Stephens today in the final of the 2017 US Open.

It’s been a US Open of comebacks, and one which has seen the American women shine even in the absence of the great Serena Williams. A new champion will be crowned in New York on Saturday, and she will be a homegrown star who knows all about triumphing over adversity – but will it be Sloane Stephens or Madison Keys?

It’s the first time since 2002 that the US Open final has been contended between two American women, and the first time since 1984 – when Martina Navratilova defeated Chris Evert – that such an all-American final hasn’t featured the two Williams sisters. Nevertheless, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that their shadow looms large over this final – or perhaps a more positive way to look at it is that this final is part of their legacy: Two powerful, athletic young American women, one African-American, one mixed race, who have grown up and come to fruition as professionals in a tennis landscape dominated by the Williams sisters. (Madison Keys started playing tennis as a child because she saw Venus Williams playing at Wimbledon on her TV, and wanted the same dress.)

Sloane Stephens (EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Stephens has had the more conflicted relationship with the Williams legacy – there was acrimony between herself and Serena Williams in the wake of Stephens’s breakthrough run to the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2013, although much of it was the creation of the media who pushed a narrative of Stephens as the protegee of Williams in a racially-inflected way – so it should perhaps feel more significant than it does that she made her first Grand Slam final by defeating Venus Williams. Actually, it was really just a very impressive win over the woman who’s won more Grand Slam matches than any other in 2017. 
It would take too long to get into how and why it’s taken Stephens four years to get back to a Grand Slam semifinal, but the fact that she came out on the winning side of it when she did had everything to do with the insane amounts of joy and confidence with which she’s currently playing, thanks to her improbable run. Out for 11 months due to a foot injury, Stephens only started hitting balls again in May and played her first match at Wimbledon. By her second, she was pushing the world no. 2 Simona Halep to three sets. When those are the first two points on your trajectory, you know it’s going to lead to something pretty special, but no one would have guessed it was going all the way to the final in New York – especially via impressive victories over Dominika Cibulkova, Anastasija Sevastova and Venus Williams.

Stephens was nervy in her match against Sevastova, but her semifinal clash against Williams brought ebbs and flows in momentum and level of play to a whole new level, with the first two sets split dramatically: In the first, a free-flowing Stephens trampling over a tight Williams, then a revived Williams thoroughly dominating an error-prone and negative Stephens. It was the third set that really contained the semifinal duel we wanted to see, and it was a memorable one, with Stephens first moving ahead 2-0 thanks to dazzling backhands, then pegged back to 2-2 behind errors off that wing. Another break lead went begging and as the match entered its closing stages, it was Stephens’s improvisational and creative abilities to finish off points – not always the strongest aspect of her game – which really shone, especially a gorgeous backhand winner down the line at 5-4, 30-30 and the self-described ‘lob thingy’ Stephens hit to get an initial foothold on Williams’s serve at 5-5. She went on to break to love and serve the match out in impressive fashion, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5.

Stephens is the third US Open finalist to be ranked outside the world’s top 50 after Williams herself in 1997 and Kim Clijsters in 2009 (Clijsters would win the tournament, Williams wouldn’t), and will have risen over 900 ranking points in the space of five weeks when Monday’s new ranking is released – but that would only be a consolation prize if, having come so unbelievably close to seizing a maiden Grand Slam title under circumstances so improbable as to make Jelena Ostapenko’s run to the French Open title look almost routine, she can’t clinch it. 

That’s where Madison Keys comes in. Two years younger than Stephens at 22, and a good friend – ‘She's probably one of my closest friends on tour. Love her to death,’ Stephens said – she is the kind of player who can render her opponents completely irrelevant, as we saw in the semifinal when she utterly dominated CoCo Vandeweghe for a 6-1, 6-2 victory in just 66 minutes, losing only a handful of points on her serve. 

‘I didn’t really have much to do with anything out there,’ a dejected Vandeweghe said afterwards.

Madison Keys (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Keys – who will rise to world no. 9 if she wins the US Open title – has much in common with Stephens. She also made her initial Grand Slam breakthrough by reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open, in her case in 2015; she was also swiftly anointed the future of American tennis in a post-Williams world, and then excoriated, albeit a lot less harshly, when she didn’t continue to surge boldly upwards but instead suffered setbacks and tough defeats (a lot of both) as she tried to establish herself at the top. Like Stephens, who had won a trio of titles in early 2016 before her ankle injury kicked in, Keys was showing real progress when she was struck down by injury – she had played through excruciating wrist pain throughout 2016 to record a career-best season, becoming the first American woman since Serena Williams to break into the top 10 and playing the WTA Finals Singapore for the first time, and appeared poised to dominate in 2017 when she missed the beginning of the season for wrist surgery. 

Keys ended up having another wrist surgery after playing a small handful of matches through the first half of 2017 and rushing to be fit for Wimbledon, where she lost in the second round. But pain-free for the first time and reunited with Lindsay Davenport as coach, she played superbly to win the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford and has been brilliant in New York, specializing in night matches – her two three-set battles with Elena Vesnina and Elina Svitolina were under the lights on Arthur Ashe, as was her demolition of Vandeweghe.

It seems quite unbelievable as an observer that Keys and Stephens are each one match away from a Grand Slam title, so it must feel even more unbelievable to them, and a big part of the match will be the question of which one handles her nerves, and the occasion, better (something it’s impossible to predict).

A flimsy head-to-head adds to the unpredictable nature of the whole thing. Keys and Stephens have played just once, a 6-4, 6-2 victory for Stephens over Keys (ranked world no. 45 and world no. 18 respectively) in Miami in 2015. Keys hits the bigger ball, she’s by far the more aggressive player, and if she steps up and hits the ball like she did against Vandeweghe, there will be little Stephens can do to stop her winning. On the other hand, if Keys is less than brilliant, Stephens’s blend of defense and power might be uniquely problematic for her – particularly with the confidence that’s so evident at the moment. Maybe we should just enjoy the show as a new champion is crowned.

Keys vs Stephens is scheduled on Arthur Ashe Stadium at 4pm local/9pm BST.

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US Open women's final - Madison Keys vs Sloane Stephens preview

Madison Keys takes on Sloane Stephens today in the final of the 2017 US Open.

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