David Kane, Point: Sloane Stephens has overcome much adversity to make it into her maiden major final, but you’d never know it from how she’s carried herself throughout the fortnight.
“I’m excited,” she breathlessly explained to WTA Insider ahead of Saturday’s clash with friend and fellow American Madison Keys. “All of the days have blended together and I have no idea what’s going on! I’m super excited to get back on the court tomorrow and just play. It’s been a long two weeks, and I’m just excited to be here.”
Stephens could only watch from home as the last all-American Grand Slam final took place at the Australian Open. The 24-year-old had flown to Australia in the hopes of kicking off her 2017 season only to find the left foot injury that had kept her off the court since the Olympic tennis event in Rio de Janeiro would require surgery.
“I knew that it was going to be tough,” she said after a thrilling three-set victory over seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams on Thursday. ‘I was going to have to play my way into shape starting from Wimbledon because I obviously couldn't run that much. I was on a walking boot like a month before I played Wimbledon.”
Following a loss at the All England Club and another to then-World No.2 Simona Halep at the Citi Open, Stephens leaned into her notoriously dry sense of humor when she predicted she’d beat someone “eventually.”
“When I started hitting balls again, my timing was good and I was feeling good about my game,” she recalled on Friday. “I just played two really tough opponents in my first two matches, and it was a struggle because I didn’t trust my foot as much.
“Coming back from foot surgery, I was a little afraid and scared. Once I let all of that go, it was nice to run around and not think about it too much.”
That freedom ended up arriving shortly thereafter, where she rolled into back-to-back Premier 5 semifinals at the Rogers Cup and Western & Southern Open, compiling a 14-2 record in her last three tournaments with the help of impressive wins over Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber, and Williams in her first Grand Slam semifinal since 2013.
“I was a baby then,” she said, looking back on her shocking win over Serena Williams en route to the final four in Melbourne. “I didn't know as much as I know now. I think now a lot of life has happened. I have been through a lot.”
As much has happened off court as on, with Stephens’ grandmother suffering a stroke during last year’s clay court season, which she had begun by winning the Volvo Car Open.
Now happy and healthy, the unseeded American - who will be now lower than the Top 30 after being ranked as low as No.957 in July - has been all but unstoppable, winning all eight three-set matches played and rallying from within two points of defeat to the in-form Williams with the help of some audacious all-court play.
“It was incredible. I was down 4-5 and it was a 30-all point, so kind of critical,” she joked. “Those moments are amazing, and what every tennis player lives for. They’re tough and mentally, they’re challenging to dig into, but in that moment, I wasn’t thinking about anything other than playing the point and executing my shots.”
Stephens’ uncanny blend of offensive firepower and fearless athleticism not only allows her to step in and be aggressive with her forehand, but also force big hitters like Venus and, presumably, Keys, to hit that extra ball and put them in uncomfortable positions on the court.
Any tactical notes will ultimately be left between her and coach Kamau Murray, and having played the last six matches without any external signs of pressure, Stephens seemed loathe to give that advantage away before the biggest match of her young career.
“The preparation will be pretty basic, but I’ll try not to stress too much or overthink it. I worked my tail off to be here and so did Maddie, and it’s just a matter of going out and competing tomorrow.
“Either way, it’s a huge win for our country and for both of us, no matter who wins the title. I’m happy to share this moment with her. There’ll be a lot of positives to take out of this match.”
Courtney Nguyen, Counterpoint: Madison Keys is just 22-years-old but it feels like she's been around the tour for a decade. That's what happens when your easy power and live-arm sends shockwaves through the youth ranks after years of training at the Evert Academy in Boca Raton, Florida. When Chris Evert vouches for your talent, the world listens.
But harnessing that power has been the challenge for the big-hitting Keys, who never saw a forehand she didn't want to obliterate. When her game is on it's a thing to behold, seemingly the next evolutionary leap in the power game that Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and Keys' coach, Lindsay Davenport, perfected last decade. If she's in the zone it's indefensible. Just ask CoCo Vandeweghe.
"It's a little bit frustrating right now how I'm feeling, that it wasn't so much of my say-so," the powerful American said after winning three games against Keys in the semifinals. "I don't feel that way very often in my tennis."
That Keys could hit the ball bigger than anyone is no revelation. At last year's French Open, no one, man or woman, averaged a faster forehand than Keys. But her ability to reign in her game and find ways to win when her shots weren't there has been the story of the last two seasons. Patience was preached but oft not practiced by the youngster, but with time, maturity, and under the tutelage of Davenport, Keys has come to learn she doesn't need to hit 40 winners to win matches.
"I think as far as being that kind of player, a lot of times it's really great or it's really terrible," she said with a laugh. "Finding that middle ground on the terrible days is the toughest part.
"Playing Sloane, I know she's going to get a lot of balls back, and she's going to reset the point over and over again. I'm just going to have to be patient and not go for too much too soon and just try to keep building points until I finally have the right ball."
Stephens is precisely the kind of opponent who can force Keys to hit herself out of contention. She will be the ultimate test of Keys' nerve. How will she handle herself in the biggest match of her life, on the biggest stage in tennis, against one of her good friends?
"The biggest growth for me has been being able to say 'I'm really nervous'," Keys said on the WTA Insider Podcast. "I texted Lindsay on the drive over before the quarterfinal and I just said 'I'm so nervous, I'm on the verge of tears. I want this so badly.' She said 'Don't worry, I have my speech ready. We're going to talk it out.'
"Before I would have felt like that was some sort of weakness. Even today when Sloane was serving for the match, I turned to Lindsay and said 'God, I'm nervous!' She was like it's fine. Everyone feels it and if you're not feeling it then I'd think you were crazy.
"That's the biggest thing, just accepting that it's going to be there and knowing that I've been in those situations and I've learned how to deal with it. That's really helped me in those moments and it's allowed me not to become overwhelmed."
In theory, both women will take the court playing with house money. Despite exemplary summer hard court records -- Keys has won 12 of 13 matches and Stephens has won 14 of 16 -- neither came to New York thinking they would standing on Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday.
Both are coming off surgeries and lengthy injury battles. But perhaps they are playing on the final Saturday because of their long stints on the sidelines. The time away gave them perspective on the sport and their careers, as they have each had to grapple with the very specific pressures of playing in the shadow of Serena and Venus, while being dubbed "The Next Big Things."
"I've not put the pressure on myself that if I don't win a Slam I'm the worst human being ever," Keys said. "For so long that was there. Why haven't you made a Slam final? It's unbelievable. I had let all these people who were saying that get into my head. 'So many people won Slams when they were 14.' Yeah. How many years ago? Have you stood on the other side of the net with these women? They're really good!
"More than that, I don't know if I was ready for it. I think I've made tremendous strides in blocking out everyone else. If I go on the court and I don't play well, ok I didn't play well. I lost a match. It's not the end of the world. I'm 22. Hopefully I have a lot more years of this.
"So I think that has been an amazing pressure off my shoulders and I've been playing a lot more free."
Keys stayed back in Manhattan during her off day on Friday, opting to complete all her media obligations after Thursday night's late win to avoid having to come back to site on Friday. She is nursing a minor leg injury, which required a medical timeout in the semifinals, but showed no signs of encumberment.
Whatever happens on Saturday, the winner will be American tennis. The questions about the future of the women's game in the States should be put to rest once and for all. Keys is the youngest American to make a Slam final since Serena in 2003 at Wimbledon. For the second time this season there will be a first-time Slam champion, and whether it's Keys or Stephens, rest assured that the post-match ceremony will be one full of happy tears, hugs, and laughter.
"I think it's amazing," Keys said. "I definitely never envisioned it happening this way, but I couldn't think of a better person to have this first experience with."
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