Coaching musical chairs as Schaap joins Team ‘Penko

When the tennis world descends upon Wimbledon, there are going to be several new coach-player pairings to look out for.

And on the women’s side, it’s truly a game of musical chairs.

Just weeks after Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit announced she was moving from Glenn Schaap to a three-month trial with Brit Nigel Sears, Schaap already has a new gig.

Tennis.Life has learned that the 50-year-old from the Netherlands, who also has worked with top-five players Dinara Safina, Nadia Petrova and Jelena Dokic during his career, has joined Team Jelena Ostapenko on a trial basis.

And, after Ostapenko ended things with another veteran coach, Aussie David Taylor, Taylor moved on to American Madison Keys.

There had been talk a few weeks ago that this would happen, never officially confirmed. but the Taylor-Keys pairing is reportedly already in London and practicing in preparation for Wimbledon.

After a long run with Samantha Stosur, Taylor worked with Naomi Osaka last year.

Schaap
Taylor and Ostapenko seemed congenial enough a few months ago at Indian Wells, but he was gone by May. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Not a secure gig

Ostapenko won the French Open last year but was shocked in the first round this time around. She has yet to settle on a solid, permanent coaching situation in her young career even if her mother, who is a tennis coach, is always on hand.

Taylor joined Team ‘Penko in Australia. But he didn’t last four months.

A year ago, Anabel Medina Garrigues was on board as the Latvian took Paris, but she didn’t return in 2018.

Coaching carousel continues as Ostapenko, Taylor part

New coach for Sock

Schaap
Sock has been scuffling mightily so far in 2018. Perhaps the addition of Knowles for Wimbledon might settle things down. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Keys and Ostapenko are not the only ones who will have a new voice in their ear at the third Grand Slam of the season.

American Jack Sock, who wrapped up 2017 in such impressive fashion but who has struggled to an incredible degree in 2018, also has a new consultant, is on board.

Mark Knowles, who joined Team Raonic last year at this time, after Raonic parted ways with Richard Krajicek, is on board.

Sock took late entry into Eastbourne this week. And with wild cards already attributed to Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, he’s the top seed in the qualifying.

Sock had long worked with Troy Hahn and, recently, with former USTA head of men’s tennis Jay Berger.

Fish in Sock’s corner in Houston

But Berger has a new gig at a club in Florida, and the 25-year-old American has been scrambling a bit on that end.

Schaap
Keys had two coaches at the beginning of 2018 – and then none – as the amiable Taylor comes on board. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Surprisingly, it’s not an unusual time of the season for coaching changes to happen.

A year ago at this time, there were also a lot of new faces.

Meanwhile, Canadian Genie Bouchard, whose own coaching situation has been rather rambunctious the last few years, should have veteran sage Robert Lansdorp with her as she plays her first-ever Wimbledon qualifying next week.

Lansdorp, 80, has been with Bouchard in Europe through practice at the Mouratoglou Academy, through to her attempt to qualify at the WTA event in Birmingham last weekend.

Coaching carousel continues as Ostapenko, Taylor part

PARIS – The first coaching change of the fortnight came when Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit parted ways with coach Glenn Schaap right in the middle of the French Open.

It turns out it wasn’t the only one.

Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 Roland Garros champion who went out in the first round this year, has split with amiable Aussie coach David Taylor.

Tennis.Life is told it’s unrelated to the early exit but is a mutual split. Their agreement ran through the French Open, and they’re parting ways.

Already, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim has written that Taylor will become Madison Keys’s new coach, although that has yet to be confirmed officially.

It was announced during the French Open that Lindsay Davenport, who has been part of Team Keys on and off for the last several years, has stepped aside as Keys’s main coach.

And earlier in the clay-court season, Keys parted ways with another coach, Dieter Kindlmann.

The American has spent the last few weeks basically flying solo, and you can’t argue the very good result in Paris.

Ostapenko’s coaching crew

Ostapenko, who turned 21 Friday, has gone through some personnel over the last year.

The Latvian had Spanish Fed Cup captain Anabel Medina Garrigues in her corner a year ago, and the two combined to capture Ostapenko’s first Grand Slam title in Paris.

It was always presented as a short-term gig. But Medina was there through the season.

Reports were she wanted some sort of guaranteed situation and, when that wasn’t forthcoming, decided to accept the Spanish Fed Cup position instead.

Since then, the 35-year-old has returned to the court in doubles, finally healthy after struggling with a shoulder injury for 2 1/2 years.

As well, last summer, Ostapenko briefly had longtime WTA Tour physical trainer Scott Byrnes working with her.

That didn’t last long. Byrnes began working with Genie Bouchard a few months ago.

Five-month stint

Taylor came on board at the beginning of 2018, although it was only for a certain number of weeks, and he didn’t actually, physically join Team Ostapenko until the Australian Open.

In between coaches, Ostapenko has had hitting partner/coach Andis Juska there.

Ostapenko

And, of course, there is her original coach, mother Jeļena Jakovļeva.

What’s next? No doubt there will be another coach in place during this key part of the season with Wimbledon, the big U.S. hard-court tournaments and the US Open coming up.

Ostapenko will fall out of the top 10 with the early exit in Paris, down to No. 12.

She’s not entered in any grass-court events until the week before Wimbledon, at Eastbourne.

Keys will make her grass-court debut next week in Birmingham.

Americans in Paris face big tests Monday

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.

tests

The “unpronounceable” opponent

The bottom half of the women’s singles draw is a land of opportunity for someone. Will the Americans seize the day?

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.

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It’s been a long, hard road to the French Open fourth round for Buzarnescu (seen here during last year’s Wimbledon qualifying). (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

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.

Contenders Kvitova and Keys make the third round

PARIS – Do you have a pick on the women’s side in this French Open?

The oddsmakers have installed Elina Svitolina as the favorite to win her first French Open – and first Grand Slam title.

She’s followed closely by Simona Halep to win her first French Open – and first Grand Slam title.

Tied for third? 2016 champion Garbiñe Muguruza and … Petra Kvitova.

They’re ahead of former champions Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

American Madison Keys stands at 50-1, after which you can probably draw the line at the possibles.

Kvitova

Wide-open field

With reigning champion Jelena Ostapenko already eliminated, with Williams and Sharapova unknown quantities at this stage, and with Halep and Svitolina untested in terms of holding up the big trophy, why not Kvitova to go deep?

And while we’re at it, why not Keys?

The two rolled to the third round on Thursday with fairly routine wins over Lara Arruabarrena and Caroline Dolehide, respectively.

“I don’t think I have any secret. I just worked pretty hard to get ready physically. Not only for the clay. It’s been already from the offseason. But obviously on the clay it’s a little bit different, and I had a great preparation, as well,” Kvitova said. “I wasn’t injured, so I really could go for it. So far it’s really working well.”

A year ago, Kvitova was just returning to play, making her season debut after rehabbing her left hand after that frightening home invasion.

She didn’t expect much. But she had set it as a return goal and, at least, could get in some big-time match play before her favorite grass season.

A year later, she’s feeling very good.

Back in 2012, Kvitova reached the semifinals in Paris, losing to eventual champion Maria Sharapova. 

Up and down for Keys

The American had good runs at the Australian Open and Charleston. But there have been some gaps in her resumé.

And off the court, she’s not as settled with her team as she could be. 

Keys let day-to-day coach Dieter Kindlmann go a while back, after less than a year. And “super-coach” Lindsay Davenport couldn’t arrive in Paris to fully go through her preparation with her.

As late as Saturday, she was still being helped by USTA head of women’s tennis Ola Malmqvist.

Here are the two “K”s practicing together last Saturday.

“We split up after Madrid, so I did Rome just with fitness trainer and physio, and I had the (USTA) head of women’s tennis, Ola, helping out, because Lindsay couldn’t come until Saturday,” Keys said after her first-round win.

“I’m obviously looking to fill that position, but I didn’t want to rush anything and pick someone just because. I feel like it’s always stable before here, so why not try something different. Who knows? … I enjoy someone who feels confident with what they’re saying. I always enjoy someone who’s very knowledgeable and can relate to me, but is a little more more relaxed and calm.  Uptight just makes me more anxious.”

The American’s best effort in Paris was the fourth round, two years ago. But with the title up for grabs, she’s certainly capable.

The tough work begins

Of the two, Keys’s road is arguably a little tougher.

She’s in the top half of the bottom half – the area Ostapenko and Venus Williams vacated in the first round. But she’s not in that section.

All four seeds in her section – No. 4 Svitolina, No. 31 Mihaela Buzarnescu and, next up for Keys, dangerous No. 21 Naomi Osaka – have made it to the third round.

Whomever gets through that section will, at worst, have No. 26 seed Barbora Strycova as a quarterfinal opponent.

Kvitova

Keys has two wins on big occasions – at Indian Wells and at the US Open – over Osaka. But both came on a hard court.

Kvitova, the No. 8 seed, runs into the in-form No. 25 seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia in the third round. And  then perhaps US Open champion Sloane Stephens.

She is 2-0 against Konteveit, having beaten her in three tough sets in Madrid earlier this month.

Looming next for the Czech could be No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki or No. 14 Daria Kasatkina.

Keys retires with hamstring tightness

MIAMI, Fla. – A tight hamstring that got worse forced Madison Keys out of the Miami Open Thursday, early in the second set of her match against the returning Victoria Azarenka.

Seeded No. 14, Keys had a tough opener against Azarenka, who didn’t have a bye in the first round and had to beat Catherine Bellis to get there.

The 23-year-old American was looking to bounce back from a loss to wild card Danielle Collins in her opening match at Indian Wells two weeks ago.

But with the hamstring not improving despite a medical timeout and a tape job, Keys decided she didn’t want to risk it.

At 7-6 (5), 2-0 down, she went over to a genuinely concerned-looking Azarenka and told her she was done.

“I felt my hamstring kind of tighten up in the middle of the first set, and at the end of the first I really felt it get worse. Then playing the first couple of games, it wasn’t getting better, and I didn’t want to make it worse than it already was,” Keys said.

hamstring

The 23-year-old has had hamstring issues before – even as a junior, the leg wrap was not a rare sight. But she said she has learned from experience that sometimes continuing to play when something’s not right isn’t the wisest option for the long term.

“I think I have gotten smarter about it. I think I have made some injuries worse by trying to play through it, and I’m just not interested in doing that at this point of the season right now,” she said. “So I think it was just the smarter idea to get off the court.”

Third round for Azarenka

Azarenka, who rolled over American Catherine Bellis 6-3, 6-0 to open the tournament, now founds herself in the third round.

The match against Keys, before the premature end, was an up-and-down affair with neither player able to seize the momentum for a full set. Azarenka led the first-set tiebreak 5-0, only to watch Keys win five of the next six points before the Belarussian pulled it out.

“I feel better. I think I raised my level compared to Indian Wells pretty dramatically. But I want to continue to just, you know, improve. But it’s going to take time. You know, it’s going to take time. I need to grind out. I need to be ready for whatever happens,” Azarenka said.

“And matches like this are very important, you know, in the first set to be down and still be able to find a way to win. Those are the things that brings confidence, brings more, you know, the rhythm, and the competition feel, I would say.”

Keys concurred on the level.

“Just from watching her from Indian Wells to Miami, she looks like she’s playing well already. There (are) obviously a couple of things here and there that aren’t perfect, but I was impressed with her form, and she’s obviously a great returner, which she showed tonight,” Keys said of Azarenka. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she was doing incredibly well in a couple of weeks.”

Azarenka’s next opponent will be No. 20 seed Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia.

Keys’s next scheduled tournament is the Volvo Open, on Har-Tru, in Charleston, S.C. That event begins in 10 days, right after the Miami Open wraps.

Madison Keys no longer under the radar

MELBOURNE, Australia – If American Madison Keys wasn’t often mentioned among the major contenders for the Australian Open women’s singles title, it was an error of omission, not commission.

The 22-year-old US Open finalist should be in the conversation for every Grand Slam on the basis of her talent and resumé. But she’s basically been MIA since that day at Flushing Meadows last September when she was beaten by her friend Sloane Stephens in the all-American final.

Keys has returned for 2018 looking in tip-top physical shape and, most importantly, with a healthy left wrist.

And with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over No. 8 seed Caroline Garcia of France Monday, the No. 17 seed is in the quarterfinals.

Were she in the bottom half of the draw, you’d have to make Keys a favorite. But she’s in the loaded upper half.

Loaded bottom half

Only one of Keys, 2016 champion Angelique Kerber, No. 1 Simona Halep and No. 6 Karolina Pliskova (the latter two if they win later Monday) will be an Australian Open finalist.

The American played just one match the rest of the way after that US Open effort – a loss to countrywoman Varvara Lepchenko in Wuhan, China 10 days later.

She began the 2017 season late after having wrist surgery in October, 2016, after making the WTA Tour Finals. And she missed last year’s Australian Open.

Keys then had a second procedure to remove scar tissue shortly after losing early at the French Open. And in Wuhan, she felt pain in that wrist again. So she took the time to get it right.’

“I think the biggest thing for me is I’m just really enjoying myself out on the court, and I obviously missed a lot of tennis last year and wasn’t playing well at the beginning of the year,” Keys said. 

“I realized once I just let things happen and trusted myself and just played my game, good things were happening and good outcomes were happening. So I just keep focusing on that and not putting as much pressure on myself.”

Good draw in Melbourne

Keys lost in the first round of Brisbane to open the season, a three-set loss to the equally rusty Johanna Konta. She’s had a very manageable draw so far in Melbourne – and she didn’t have to play Konta, her scheduled third-round opponent, after the British No. 1 lost early.

But the performance against Garcia was good enough to set off the bells even if Garcia thought she missed the boat on this one.

“I don’t think she was unplayable. Nobody is unplayable. She did a good performance, but mine was below what I can do – what I must do to beat her,” Garcia said during her French-language media conference. “My serve wasn’t up to it. Against a girl like that, I didn’t make enough first serves. I couldn’t play my game. All my matches since the beginning of the tournament were pretty average.”

Keys

The loss in the US Open final was a tough one to get over. Keys was helped by running into Kim Clijsters almost immediately after leaving the court. Clijster can relate absolutely; she didn’t win her first Grand Slam title until her fifth title.

Her own coach, Lindsay Davenport, had some of that experience as well when she played. But it’s all part of the learning curve, and Keys’s curve is getting steeper the closer she gets to the top.

“Obviously making a first week for the first time, everything is very overwhelming. I feel like being more consistent about making second weeks and having runs has helped me manage the moment. But more than anything, it’s just focusing on the match in front of me and not thinking about, oh, I could make the final. It’s more I have a quarterfinal and that’s what I need to focus on and not look past that,” she said. “The more I have been in the situation, the better I have become at doing that and not looking at the draw and doing all of that.”

Davenport advice well-followed

If you’ve ever watched the on-court coaching consults with Davenport permitted during the regular WTA Tour events, you’ve noted a common refrain. 

Davenport is always telling her to stay in the point, not pull the trigger too early, and wait for the right ball to pounce on with all of her power.

Keys has been listening.

“I’m feeling really good. I feel like I’m playing just solid, consistent tennis. And I think today was a good example of that. I think I served well. I think I returned well. But I don’t think I played unbelievable. I think I just played really solid and smart,” she said. “And I wasn’t going for unbelievable shots and things like that. I just was waiting for the right ball. Then trusting that I was going to make the right decision when I finally had the opportunity to go for it.”

Next up for Keys is Kerber, who survived a frustrating, scream-inducing three-setter against the unique and uniquely enjoyable Hsieh Su-Wei of Taipei.

Hsieh had a nice run at the French Open a year ago and got a lot of attention with her French cheering section (she lives in Paris with her French boyfriend) and her ever-present smile as she dissected her opponents on the red clay. 

Shealso has been ranked No. 1 in doubles and has won Grand Slam titles.

Near-exit turns into nice run

After losing the first set of her first-round match 0-6 and going on to win 8-6 in the third, the 32-year-old upset Garbiñe Muguruza in the second round and Agnieszka Radwanska in the third round, before meeting Kerber.

Hsieh’s game – all angles and drop volleys and unexpected on-the-rise, flat groundstrokes – is relatively easier to execute against a bigger hitter who might not move as well or handle the off-pace shots as deftly.

Against Radwanska, and then Kerber Monday, it’s a challenging, energy-consuming exercise because of the increased number of balls the opponent will get back. By the middle of the second set, blowing her nose on changeovers, the needle on Hsieh’s tank began heading towards empty.

A year ago, Kerber might have shuttled herself right out of the tournament the way she was playing. A year later, she dug in and kept the intensity up to finally pull it out.

Keys v Kerber a Kolossal Klash

The German is 6-1 against Keys, much of that record produced against the “old” Keys, the one who wouldn’t stay in many rallies long enough to impose her game. That record includes victories at the 2013 Australian Open, the 2016 Olympics in Rio and and WTA Finals in Singapore at the end of that season.

Now, against a Keys with a healthy wrist, a Keys who’s really enjoying her job right now, the story may be quite different.

Then again, after a year that felt like a season-long hangover from her breakthrough exploits in 2016, that last part may be true of Kerber as well

Stephens and Keys usher in new era

NEW YORK – When history looks back on the 2017 US Open women’s singles final, it won’t be very kind to the actual tennis that was played.

But no one inside Arthur Ashe Stadium is likely to feel they were shortchanged.

Everything else from the moment Madison Keys’ final forehand went into the net, and her friend Sloane Stephens won the US Open, was pitch-perfect on every possible level.

It will go down as of a fine testament to perseverance through adversity, to sportsmanship, to a mother’s love an dedication, to friendship, to grace and poise under pressure – and, oh yes, to American tennis.

And, to African-Americans in tennis.

Stephens won her first Grand Slam title in just a few ticks over an hour, beating Keys 6-3, 6-0 and completing a comeback that had her outside the top 900 in the world just five weeks ago.

Her first reaction was disbelief. And then, the million-dollar, megawatt smile appeared. But there was no over-the-top celebrating, conscious as she was that her great triumph was simultaneously her good friend’s defeat.

A roller coaster women’s event

The 24-year-old was the last woman standing at the end of a US Open that, on the women’s side, was a roller coaster ride of emotions. Many top seeds went out early. The deck was being reshuffled every day.

And in the end, the last four women standing were all American, at America’s Slam.

There was 37-year-old Venus Williams, the sentimental favourite. Coco Vandeweghe, the brash one. And then there were Stephens and Keys, two players who – were it not for Venus and sister Serena – might never have dreamed they could be standing there on the final Saturday on the biggest stage in tennis.

Stephens, ranked No. 83 coming in, was the only unseeded player of the four. 

Foes briefly, friends always

The two finalists are friends; afterwards, Stephens called Keys her “best friend in tennis.”

She felt for her friend. And she knew that the 22-year-old Keys, her right thigh tightly wrapped, was not 100 per cent physically.

Stephens

When it was over, they both arrived at the net with their arms outstretched, ready to celebrate and commiserate in the same long, lengthy embrace. Keys was in tears, and Stephens was close to tears herself trying to console her friend at what was the watershed moment of her own career. 

I think at the end of a Slam, whoever is still on the court is physically going to be feeling something. But I definitely think my play today came down to nerves and all of that, and I just don’t think I handled the occasion perfectly,” Keys said. “I don’t think I was moving perfectly, but at the same time, I’m not going to take anything away from Sloane. She played really well. I don’t think I played great. I think that’s kind of a combination for a disaster for me.”

Not five minutes later, Stephens crossed the net and went over to sit with Keys to await the trophy ceremony. In no time, she had the disconsolate Keys laughing.

Stephens

“To play her here, I wouldn’t have wanted to play anyone else. I told her I wish there could be a draw, I wish we could have both won. If it were the other way around, she would have done the same for me,” Stephens said during the trophy presentation. “I’m going to support her no matter what and she’s going to support me no matter what. That’s what real friendship is.”

The “village” of Sloane Stephens

When Stephens made her way up to the player’s box, there was a long hug for Kamau Murray.

Stephens has had a few coaches in her career. And none ever seemed to fit quite right. From Nick Saviano to Thomas Hogstedt and even Paul Annacone for a brief period, there was never quite the right connection that would get the best out of a supremely talented player, but one seemed to lack the inner drive to maximize it.

Murray has been in the picture for two years, through Stephens’ 11-month absence because of a foot surgery. It seems he was able to help light the fire, stoke the belief. Being out of the game nearly a year also will give a player rather a different perspective on things.

And then, there was one final hug for mother Sybil Smith.

Stephens
Stephens is outwardly steely, so the emotional moment with her mother – the culmination of a long journey together – was as meaningful as they come.

It was then that the tears began to flow.

“We’ve been on such a journey together. My mom is incredible. When I was 11 years old my mom took me to a tennis academy and one of the director there told my mom I’d be lucky to play Division II tennis and get a scholarship,” Stephens said. “So, parents: never give up on your kids if they want to do something. Always encourage them … If someone ever tells you your kid’s not going to be good, push them to the side. Because your kid could be me one day.”

Good matchup for Stephens

Stephens’ poise in her first major final belied the nerves she felt beforehand, the nerves Keys felt beforehand. Really, the biggest thing to come out of Stephens’ summer run was her outward calm under pressure as she piled up some impressive wins.

The match against Keys was always going to be Keys’ power against the combination of qualies Stephens brings to the court: speed, consistency, the ability to build points and to know when to up the power gauge and rip one.

When she was told in her press conference just how consistent she had been, she was as shocked as she was when she saw the size of the $3.7 million check she was handed on court.

“I made six unforced errors in the whole match? Shut the front door. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before. Oh, my God. That’s a stat,” she said. “I was nervous, and before the match, I was super nervous. Once I got out there, I felt a lot better. So that was good. I just tried to stay calm and keep my composure and run every ball down. That was it. Super simple.”

Beyond tennis, an epochal moment

That the two finalists are African-American – in Keys’ case, on her father’s side – was just part of the story during that trophy ceremony.

USTA president and CEO Katrina Adams presented the trophies. A woman, and an African-American.

Stephens
“Girl, did you see that check that lady handed me? Like, yes,”

Thasunda Duckett, the CEO of Consumer Banking at JP Morgan Chase, presented the winner’s cheque for $3.7 million to Stephens. She, too, a woman and African-American.

StephensOn so many levels, this was an epochal moment. And especially so with the heavy promotion of the upcoming “Battle of the Sexes” movie over the weekend.

The personal journey of the groundbreaking Billie Jean King took place nearly 45 years ago.

The accomplished women standing there for this trophy ceremony embodied the coming to fruition of so many things King has worked so hard for her entire life.

Not just on the tennis court, but off the court as well.

Fairness. Equality. Opportunity.

Watch out, 2018

For Stephens, it now begins. As the American champion of the American Grand Slam, a beautiful woman with a great back story and a Hollywood smile, her life is going to change.

“This is a whole new level guys. Seriously,” Stephens said during a post-match interview with ESPN.

Stephens
Catastrophe narrowly avoided.

She almost dropped the trophy. She joked about being totally worried about the “boob sweat” factor, knowing that the her photo with the trophy will be blown up and hung up in a lot of places.

Does she want another one?

“Of course. Girl, did you see that check that lady handed me? Like, yes,” Stephens said, eliciting a big laugh. “Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will. Man.”

For Keys, two years younger, it’s another sort of beginning. 

She has reached her first major final. Who doubts that in the very short term, she will be holding up the big trophy?

And, in case you missed it, 13-year-old CoCo Gauff and Amanda Anisimova, who turned 16 last week, will play the junior girls’ final Sunday. They’re Americans as well.  

Keys, Stephens win all-American day

NEW YORK – Whatever happened, there was going to be an all-American women’s singles final Saturday at the US Open.

What was left to be determined Thursday was who the participants would be.

Among the embarrassment of American riches in the final four, only two could advance to the final day.

It was going to be either Venus Williams or Sloane Stephens. And it was going to be either Madison Keys or Coco Vandeweghe.

In the end, it was the two youngest – Stephens, 24 and Madison Keys, 22.

Both of them pulled off bravado performances of very different kinds in the semifinals.

First to get to the finish line was Stephens, who defeated Venus Williams 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 victory that had a little bit of everything.

By the third set, when both were playing well at the same time and giving it everything they had, it was nerve-wracking and dramatic and in doubt until the very end.

“I just wasn’t playing well. I just wasn’t playing well. Those are moments where you have to dig deep and figure out how to get the ball on the court and have a big game. I can’t be tentative and try to figure out how to put that ball in,” Williams said of that first set. “But I figured out a lot, but she played great defense. I haven’t played her in a long time. Clearly she’s seen me play many, many times. I haven’t seen her play as much.”

No solace for Venus

It didn’t matter what the question was, Williams wasn’t having much of it during her press conference. She wasn’t the least bit interested in talking about tributes, or about what a superb season she’s having, or any of that. She showed up to win, and she didn’t get the job done.

Keys
Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens, 13 years apart but neck-and-neck at the end to try to get to the US Open women’s singles final.

Williams was the sentimental choice who obviously won’t have that many more opportunities to win another major. But the 37-year-old ran out of legs in the end.

She made a lot of errors, but she didn’t have a lot of options. Whenever the rallies went past a certain length, Stephens won most of them. “Yeah, it was definitely well competed. In the end, she ended up, you know, winning more points than I did. That’s what it adds up to,” she said. 

A month ago, unthinkable

Stephens’  sub-900 ranking just over a month ago has been well-documented. And she needed to use a protected ranking just to get into the US Open, It will be a first Grand Slam singles final.  

It also will be the first for Keys, who crushed Coco Vandweghe 6-1, 6-2 in the nightcap.

“I think it’s amazing. I definitely never envisioned it happening this way, but I couldn’t think of a better person to have this first experience with,” Keys said.

Keys
Venus ran out of gas, though not out of will, by the end of the third set against Sloane Stephens Thursday.

After Williams came back with a roar in the second set, Stephens just tried to stay positive.

“I wasn’t making that many mistakes in the first set. Venus made a lot of errors. I think in the second set, obviously playing Venus, she’s an amazing competitor and she’s been here many times before. She wasn’t going to just give it to me. I think she really stepped up her game in the second set. I mean, you don’t expect anything else from multi-Grand Slam champion. She’s been here before,” Stephens said. “I tried just not to get too down on myself. I knew obviously in the third set I would have to fight my tail off and get my racket on every ball.”

All Keys, from first to last

If the first semifinal was dramatic, the second was one-way traffic – for Keys.

Madison Keys, despite a “something” in her right leg, was pretty sprightly after reaching the US Open women’s singles final Thursday.

The 22-year-old put up a performance of such quality and bravura over Coco Vandeweghe, there wasn’t a single solitary thing her countrywoman could do to stop her.

Even a medical timeout to have her right upper leg wrapped at 6-1, 4-1 didn’t interrupt Keys’ flow. All it did was take a match that would have lasted less than an hour and nudge it over the one-hour mark.

“None of it had anything to do with the occasion. It was more Madison played an unbelievable match. I didn’t really have much to do with anything out there,” Vandeweghe said. 

Vandeweghe was, needless to say, quite upset.

“She was playing a great first set. I thought at some point she might start running a little bit colder than what she was doing. But I mean, it’s really not over until the last point. I was fighting as hard as I could for as long as I could, but she stayed hot the whole time,” Vandeweghe added. “It’s a little bit frustrating right now how I’m feeling of that it wasn’t so much of my say-so. I don’t feel that way very often in my tennis, so I think it’s a little bit of an opportunity lost for me.”

Keys knew she couldn’t have done it much better.

“I played really, really well. It was kind of one of those days where I came out and I was kind of in a zone. And I just kind of forced myself to stay there. I knew I was going to have to play really well in order to beat her. And, you know, I feel like once things started going, it just kind of fell into place. Luckily I was able to close it out the way that I did,” she said. “

At 25, perhaps Coco’s time is now

NEW YORK – As big as she serves, as hard as she hits the ball, as great an athlete as she is and as much of an all-court game as she plays, Coco Vandeweghe should have been here long before now.

But to each his own journey.

And at 25, perhaps the New York-born, Southern California-raised Vandeweghe is just now putting all of those numerous pieces of her very talented puzzle together.

Vandeweghe defeated the current world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic 7-6 (4), 6-3 in the first women’s quarterfinal at the US Open Wednesday.

The victory made her the third American to win her quarterfinal match over the last two days. Her friend and Fed Cup teammate Madison Keys got it done in the evening match, defeating qualifier Kaia Kanepi 6-3, 6-3.

Keys, like Stephens and Vandeweghe, is into her first US Open semifinal. Venus, as we know, has been there and done that.

And so it was done: the women’s semifinals Thursday night literally will be all-American.

Long road from junior title to final four

This is Vandeweghe’s 11th consecutive appearance at her home-country Grand Slam. And this is the first time she has ever gotten past the second round.

Back in 2008, at age 16, she defeated Kristina Mladenovic in the semis and Gabriela Paz in the final to win the juniors.

“I’m a pretty positive person, so I don’t really look too much at the negatives of my life. I try to move forward as best I can, and I’ve always done that. I’ve always been more of a glass half full,” Vandeweghe said. “I don’t really take too much in previous bad experiences. I take more in the positives and learning curve that you can learn from losses; you can learn from wins.”

Coco
Vandeweghe still wears the same chain and medallion today that she did back in 2008, when she won the junior girls’ event.

But even then, there were moments. Vandeweghe, mother Tauna and her coach really got into it after a match earlier in that 2008 tournament.

Folks were walking by, taking a wide road around them, as the trio got heated about what sounded like some unacceptable on-court behaviour by Vandeweghe.

It went on for 15 minutes; they were completely oblivious to all the people around them.

Coco

Putting the pieces together

Vandeweghe hasn’t changed that much. She’s still a very feisty individual on court. Her language is pretty salty. And her strutting body language can be off-putting to some.

For whatever reason, her association with Aussie Pat Cash (volatile himself as a player) has helped channel all of that.

“I think the biggest thing is channeling my intensity and tenacity out onto the court and putting it into a singular focus. I think that’s probably one of the biggest things he’s implemented into my regimen,” Vandeweghe said.

It is who she is. Vandeweghe’s emotions have hurt her many times on the long road to get to this final four. But they’re also part of a competitive nature that, combined with her great athleticism and multiple on-court skills, may someday make a major champion out of her.

“I think everyone has their favorite, and everyone has their least favorite player. Whatever I am to any person out there, doesn’t really affect me personally. I mean, I have my favorites in every sport and in general. You know, I even have my favorite tennis players,” Vandeweghe said. “So it comes with sports. I think there’s going to be lots of players misunderstood. There’s going to be players that are thought of one way but really they are another way. I think it’s just sports. You grow and you learn and you adjust to the moments.”

It’s taking longer than most expected; that’s equally true of the two other younger semifinalists who will take the court Thursday night.

Fabulous (American) Four

Stephens, 24, has always seemed less ambitious than her peers, for whatever reason. And of all of them, it has always seemed easier for her – at least from the outside. For the last year, Stephens was sidetracked with a foot injury and subsequent surgery. Over the last month, she is back with a vengeance.

Coco
Keys (seen here at junior Wimbledon in 2011 at age 16) had a lot of injuries during her junior days. This year, two wrist procedures held her back. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Keys, 22, has been in the top 10 and is every bit the talent Vandeweghe is. Both women have great serves. Their serves make you wonder why so many of the women serve so poorly. 

But Keys, unlike Vandeweghe, is learning more of an all-court game, a tactical game on the fly. It’s a lot harder to do it that way, when you’re full-bore into your professional career and have to be concerned more with winning matches than becoming a better tennis player. But she’s good enough to do it; she’s already doing it.

The queen and her princesses

Along with Venus Williams, the immortal 37-year-old who may well end up winning it all, the four American women have turned this US Open around.

So many top names were missing at the start – notably, Serena Williams on the women’s side. On the men’s side, too many to mention. So many really good players flamed out early.

Even Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal struggled at the beginning of the tournament.

A pretty stacked women’s team in Rio included both Williams sisters, Keys, Stephens, Vandeweghe and Bethanie Mattek-Sands. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

This all-USA team – all of whom represented the country at the Olympics a year ago – will be the story of this quintessentially American tournament regardless of who is holding up the trophies on the weekend.

On Thursday night, Williams will play Stephens for only the second time. The first time was in the first round of the 2015 French Open. And it was won by Stephens.

Then, Keys will play Vandeweghe for the third time in five weeks, after they had never, ever met before during their careers.

“We have so many Americans to talk about in the last days of the US Open. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat in this chair and had to hear, you know, how horrible tennis is in America,” Keys said. “So this feels really good. The fact that there is going to be, you know, two all-American semifinals, two, you know, people in the finals in Saturday.”

US Open Day 10 – What to Watch

NEW YORK – Whatever watching you’re doing, it’s going to be on Arthur Ashe Stadium under the roof.

When the schedule for the second Wednesday came out Tuesday evening, the US Open didn’t even bother trying to schedule the myriad of junior and legends and men’s doubles matches that would normally have been played.

The weather forecast was that bad.

To the four singles quarterfinals scheduled on Arthur Ashe, they did add three women’s quarterfinal doubles matches on the Grandstand. But that was with a hope and a prayer.

watch

Women’s Matches to Watch

[1] Karolina Pliskova (CZE) vs. [20] Coco Vandeweghe (USA)

Two more Americans will try to add their names to the women’s singles semifinal roster, along with Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens.

Those two got it done – both in third-set tiebreaks, Tuesday.

First up is No. 20 seed Coco Vandeweghe, who has the toughest task of all against world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova.

Despite being the top-ranked woman in the world, Pliskova has been very much under the radar during the US Open. Part of that was the stadium-court scheduling and return of Maria Sharapova. The other has been the success of the American women at their home Slam.

Pliskova’s hold on No. 1 was tenuous going in. There were, in theory, eight women who could have ended the US Open in the top spot. But most of them fell away quite early. That includes No. 2 Simona Halep, who was just five ranking points behind at the start and had far fewer ranking points to defend this fortnight than Pliskova, a finalist last year.

WATCH

Now, only one player stands in the way of the Czech’s maintaining the top spot: Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza.

If Pliskova doesn’t reach the final (i.e., win this match against Vandeweghe and her semi-final as well), Muguruza will become the new No. 1, the 24th player in the history of the WTA Tour to do so.  

Pliskova won their last meeting, on the indoor clay-court track in Stuttgart. But Vandeweghe won their previous two meetings, on hard court in Dubai and at Wimbledon two years ago, in the second round.

There will be big serving, and hard hitting. And, hopefully, some fruitful net attacking by Vandweghe to change things up.

[15] Madison Keys (USA) vs. [Q] Kaia Kanepi (EST)

The theme of the day for the women is power as two more hard hitters take the court tonight.

“Late Night with Madison” has become a theme with the 22-year-old American, who has fed off the well-refreshed late night crowds on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

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Coco Vandeweghe and Madison Keys had no hard feelings after their Stanford final last month – clearly! Both returned to the top 20.

This time, she and Kanepi are the opening act for the blockbuster to follow between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro.

Kanepi, sidelined for much of the last few years with plantar fasciitis in both feet as well as a bout with the Epstein-barr virus, has gone through the qualifying and won four main-draw matches to get this far.

Keys has played some marathons, but still would be relatively fresher.

There’s a decade between them (Kanepi is 32). But they’ve only met once, on clay in Madrid in 2015 (won by Kanepi).

Men’s Matches to Watch

[1] Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs. Andrey Rublev (RUS)

Nadal’s draw has worked out extremely well for him. He has yet to face a top-50 player, and Rublev is no exception.

But the 19-year-old Russian, who upset No. 7 Grigor Dimitrov earlier in the tournament, will be top 50 when this tournament is over. In fact, he’ll be in the top 40 no matter what happens against Nadal. Rublev also beat No. 9 seed David Goffin, clearly hobbled by a knee injury.

Nadal has never played Rublev. But he’s 1-0 against his coach, a Spaniard named Fernando Vicente. Nadal beat Vicente, who reached No. 29 in the singles rankings in 2000,  in straight sets in the first round of the 2003 US Open. Nadal was 17 at the time.

[3] Roger Federer (SUI) vs. [24] Juan Martin del Potro (ARG)

This rematch of the 2009 US Open final was the most hotly-anticipated potential clash on the men’s side with the exception of one – a potential Federer-Nadal semifinal.

That del Potro got to this place at all was close to miraculous, after he struggled with a virus in the 36 hours before his match against No. 6 seed Dominic Thiem.

Down two sets to none, aching and ailing, del Potro somehow found a way to come back and win in five. It was a match he called “unforgettable.”

He should be feeling better by this point. But obviously not at his best. 

Federer had an unblemished record against his previous three opponents (Mikhail Youzhny, Feliciano Lopez, Philipp Kohlscrieber). He’s 16-5 against del Potro. But the Argentine’s victories over him have hurt.

He defeated Federer twice at his hometown tournament in Basel, Switzerland. And he defeated him in the US Open that year, ending Federer’s streak of five straight titles at Flushing Meadows.

It’s going to be a long day of tennis before this one gets going tonight. Hopefully, the wait will have been worth it.