PARIS – The draw decreed that friends and countrywomen Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, who met in the U.S. women’s singles final nine months ago, cannot repeat that in Paris.
But they could meet in the semis.
And that in itself would be a tremendous accomplishment on (the non-European players’ mantra) their “least-favorite surface”.
But as impressive as their runs have already been, Stephens and Keys face absorbing tests Sunday.
They play lower-ranked but very much in-form players. And for both, they are first-time meetings.
The “unpronounceable” opponent
Keys defeated a pair of Americans (Sachia Vickery, Caroline Dolehide) – both younger and less accomplished – fairly routinely in the first two rounds. On Friday, Keys found herself up against the equally hard-hitting Japanese player Naomi Osaka, the Indian Wells champion.
It could have been a battle royale. But on this day, Osaka was not up to the task early and Keys was on a roll – at least initially. She wavered a little in closing it out, and Osaka made much more of a contest of it. But in the end, she was through.
“Even seeing how she raised her level in the second set was, you know, a lot different from the last time we played each other, so you can tell that she’s definitely getting better and better and making smarter decisions. So I think luckily I’m still a little bit older, so pulled out the veteran moves today,” Keys said of Osaka.
“I feel like her attitude was really great today and I never really saw her get overly down on herself. More than anything, I think she just played really smart at times.”
House call for Dr. Buzarnescu
On Sunday, Keys faces a completely different challenge in No. 31 seed Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania.
Buzarnescu’s back story is one of early promise, bottomless struggle, and second acts. She rose to the top of the juniors in a quality era; the draws of her tournaments back then are sprinkled with mentions of Radwanska, Wozniacki, Azarenka, Cibulkova and others.
But her body betrayed her for a decade. A shoulder injury right as she was transitioning from the juniors the pros put her out, cost her some sponsorships just when she needed the help. And two surgeries on her left knee cost her multiple years, during which time she worked to earn a PhD.
She managed to keep going financially by playing professional interclub matches in various countries. And if you look at her match record, she was literally playing almost every week. She went from the Australian Open qualifying last January right to the lowest-level pro events in Turkey for weeks on end after that.
And then, a twist in the tale, per the New York Times. Last spring, playing team matches in the Netherlands, the pain in the knee was suddenly … gone. She was ranked just inside the top 400 then. She finished 2017 ranked No. 56.
And on Friday, she upset one of the pre-tournament favorites, No. 4 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, in straight sets.
Into the unknown for Keys
At 30, this is only Buzarnescu’s second visit to Paris. She lost in the second round of qualifying once before, all the way back in 2012. In her debut, she is seeded and on a roll.
For Keys, the challenges come with Buzarnescu’s leftyness, and with the unknown quantity that she is. Not surprisingly, the two have never faced each other. They are seven years apart in age, and Keys hasn’t set foot in the ITF circuit since she was 17 years old.
“I have not played — I don’t know how to pronounce her last name so I won’t say it. I’m going to rely on my lovely coaches to help me out there and give me a game plan, and then just going to go out and hopefully execute it well,” Keys said. “I know that she’s seeded and I always see her name. I just haven’t been able to watch any of her matches. That’s more what I mean when I say I don’t know her. It’s also kind of refreshing and nice to play someone you have never played before.”
A victory would put her in the quarterfinals for the first time in Paris, against either No. 26 Barbora Strycova, or unseeded Yulia Putintseva.
That’s the section of the draw that contained defending champion Jelena Ostapenko and No. 9 seed Venus Williams, both of whom exited in the first round.
So it’s a great opportunity.
Stephens escapes against Giorgi
There were some breathtaking rallies during Stephens’s third-round match against Camila Giorgi on Saturday, a high-octane encounter that had been postponed 24 hours by rain late on Friday.
And somehow, the US Open champion survived. She was down a break early in the third set. Giorgi served for the match twice – at 5-4, and 6-5 – only to be broken. Stephens sneaked out the last two games, and the match.
Her match Sunday won’t be quite as hard-hitting, but she will face a very in-form player in Anett Kontaveit of Estonia.
As with Keys, Stephens isn’t overly familiar with her opponent. In this case, as well, it will be a first career meeting.
“I don’t think I have ever played her, so I think it will be a good match. Obviously she had a good win today (against Petra Kvitova). … Looking forward to it, and obviously playing fourth round of a Grand Slam is always a good opportunity,” Stephens said.
“Not much, just what I have seen in the last couple of weeks being in Europe and seeing her have some good results. Yeah, basically that. Just what I have seen in the last couple weeks.”
Kontaveit an in-form player
Both Kontaveit and Stephens were top-five juniors. But they were three years apart – practically a generation in junior tennis.
Kontaveit went 9-3 through Stuttgart, Madrid and Miami. She defeated Venus Williams twice. And on each occasion, she lost to the eventual champion: Karolina Pliskova in Stuttgart, Petra Kvitova in Madrid and Elina Svitolina in Rome.
Stephens did not have the same kind of clay-court campaign leading up to the French Open, as she played Fed Cup and also caught her breath after winning a big title in Miami, near the area in which she grew up. But if there’s an advantage she has over Kontaveit, it’s that she knows now how to peak at a major.
There is no advantage for either player in terms of the short turnaround. Both their third-round matches were postponed in the late going Friday evening, and both played them Saturday. And both had good tests.
If Stephens can win, she would play the winner between No. 2 seed Caroline Wozniacki and No. 14 seed Daria Kasatkina.
And after reaching the round of 16 four straight years from 2012-15, and again this year, it would be a new career best-effort in Paris.