INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Finally, American Madison Keys is 100 per cent healthy.
Now, she has to shake off the rustiness from having played so little tennis and get back to winning.
That didn’t happen Saturday at the BNP Paribas Open, as Keys went down to a solid Mona Barthel, 3-6, 6-1, 7-5. It was a second-round match, but the first for the 24-year-old Keys after a first-round bye.
This is just the second tournament of the season for Keys, who lost in the round of 16 at the Australian Open. She also played two Fed Cup matches against Australia, winning one and losing the other to Ashleigh Barty.
But then, she took a pass on the tournaments in the Middle East.
Keys made the semifinals at the French Open and the semifinals again at the US Open last year. But she didn’t play much tennis after that.
She retired in her second match in Wuhan, China last September against Angelique Kerber – already down 6-0, 4-1 when she pulled the plug. She also withdrew from Beijing after winning her first-round match.
She reappeared in early November to play the second-tier Tour final in Zhuhai. But then she didn’t play any warmup events before the first major of the year in Melbourne.
No momentum since 2016
In her post-match interview, Keys said that she hadn’t been able to get any momentum in her career since … all the way back in 2016.
She has posted some impressive results – especially at majors – during that time span. But that’s an extended period, at a young age, to have sort of stalled in a career that very much seemed to have an upward trajectory.
Healthy now, she hopes she can finally start stringing matches and tournaments together.
Keys lost her first match at Indian Wells a year ago, to the (then) surprising Danielle Collins. So she won’t lose any ground from her current ranking of No. 17. But she won’t make up any, either.
She’ll be in the same situation at the next top in Miami, where after a first round bye she retired in the second set of her match against Victoria Azarenka last year.
Keys bounced back after that, reaching the semifinals in Charleston.
As American Madison Keys turns 24, it feels like a bit of a crossroads time in her career.
She’s no longer the “up-and-coming young American”. And she’s already reached a Grand Slam final at the 2017 US Open as well as three other major semifinals.
Only Wimbledon is missing to complete the “Final Four” Slam.
Keys also has been in the top 10, reaching her career high of No. 7 in Oct. 2016.
And yet … it kind of feels as though she’s in a bit of a holding pattern, which probably hasn’t been helped by a number of injuries.
None of them have been so severe as to keep her off the court for extended periods of time. But it’s been more than enough to quash her momentum on numerous occasions.
The American came on the scene four years ago on a similar timetable as the one-year-older Genie Bouchard the previous year and countrywoman Sloane Stephens the year before that, with a big semi-final result at the Australian Open.
The addition of Lindsay Davenport as coach in 2015 – first on a consulting basis but then, along with Davenport’s husband Jon Leach, more of a full-time commitment, looked to be successful at times.
But Davenport has a lot of commitments – she has her television job, is a wife and mother of four, and also plays the legends’ events at the majors.
After that, Keys went with Jesse Levine, the congenial Canadian-American whose elbow wasn’t going to allow him to keep playing on the ATP Tour. She also added experienced trainer Scott Byrnes.
But that arrangement didn’t last that long. After that, Davenport returned, and Keys was also getting help from the USTA staff.
This season, she has Jim Madrigal (who had been the coach of Tennys Sandgren) in her corner.
Keys was beaten by Elina Svitolina in the fourth round of the Australian Open in a see-saw match. She played Fed Cup in Asheville, NC last week, beating Kim Birrell but losing 6-4, 6-1 to Ashleigh Barty as the U.S. dropped the tie and will now face a relegation playoff.
The American had a “tread-water” season in 2018. She began it at No. 19, and finished at No. 17.
But she withdrew from the Premier 5 event in Dubai this week, and isn’t scheduled to play again until Indian Wells – with just one tournament under her belt in 2019.
She lost her opening matches at both Indian Wells and Miami a year ago. So it’s a great opportunity to pick up some big-time ranking points.
She was the year-end No. 1 junior in 1997 during a not-overly-deep period when several players who would become Grand Slam champions were still very young. Black lost to Justine Henin at the junior US Open warmup tournament in Montreal in 1997, then won the U.S. Open (Henin lost in the quarters to the more obscure Jackie Trail).
Black also won Junior Wimbledon. And then she reached the final of the junior French Open (beating Francesca Schiavone in the first round, a 13-year-old Kim Clijsters in the second round, before losing to Henin).
She was around a looong time, and might still be best known for this viral video.
It was old hat for Black; she showed off those skills back when she was just 16.
Her first ITF pro match was in her native Harare 27 years ago – as it happened, she lost to future doubles partner Liezel Huber (then Horn) in the first round.
But it turned out she was a bit too much of a shrimp to stand up to the increasing number of giants out there – perhaps one era too late, as women’s tennis was being taken over by the power hitters.
She’s listed at 5-foot 5 3/4. But that’s probably on skates.
Whenever they put in fractions, you know they’re pushing the limit.
Black won one career title in singles, and reached a career high of No. 31.
But she was a spectacular doubles player, earning the bulk of her more than $7.7 million in earnings that way.
Even later in her career, when even the women’s doubles game because more of a slugfest, her great hand and brilliant anticipation served her well.
For several productive years, she partnered up with the former South African Huber, now an American.
They had their moments, such as when Huber threatened to sue her when, after she was off much of a season recuperating from a knee injury.
Huber dished the dirt in a blog she used to write on the USTA website. It’s since disappeared, but we’ve resurrected a quote.
“At last year’s U.S. Open, where we lost to Venus and Serena, things started to get way from us. She wasn’t playing the big points well and getting nervous. The same thing happened at the WTA Championships and in Australia. It didn’t matter how well I played, she just couldn’t seem to bring her best tennis in the finals and in important matches.
“It got worse and worse as this year went on. At the Paris Indoors, she got a nose a bleed and had to pull out of the final. Because she was the one with the injury, I was given more ranking points than her so when we got to Dubai. I was ranked ahead of her individually and then her husband told me that Cara wouldn’t be motivated to go on court if she wasn’t No. 1 anymore.
“Then they asked me to give back all my rankings points so we could be even, which would also mean I would have to give back my prize money. To make a long story short, our communication got worse and worse and finally we ended our partnership in Miami. We hugged and told each other that whenever one of us felt that she wanted to get back together, she could call the other and we could try it again. But she’s not talking to me any more so I don’t think that is going to happen.”
(Don’t you wish the players would still be that … out there about things?)
Black teamed up with Rennae Stubbs and things went so well, she decided to keep that going and push Huber to the sidelines.
They worked that out for – awhile. Probably mostly because they made a nice living together.
The pair won 10 tournaments in 2008 (including the Tour championships), but only one Grand Slam (the 2008 U.S. Open).
Black had been an Aussie Open short of the mixed doubles Grand Slam, until she won it in 2012 with Leander Paes.
She won the 2008 U.S. Open mixed with Paes, and the 2004 Wimbledon and 2002 French Open with brother Wayne.
Things with Huber soured again. Their last event was Miami in 2010, and after that, Black played with a village of partners.
After 2011 Wimbledon, Black took a sabbatical, for obvious reasons (see above photo) We figured she was done.
She came back and was playing great, teaming with Sania Mirza. In 2015, at age 36, she was ranked No. 4.
The partnership with Mirza ended, and the Indian star (a new mother herself), went onto great things with Martina Hingis.
Black’s last match came at Wimbledon in 2015, when she reached he quarterfinals with American Lisa Raymond. They lost 8-6 in the third set to Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, the No. 2 seeds who lost in the finals to … Hingis an Mirza.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
On 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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. “