Simona Halep a Grand Slam champion, at long last

PARIS – There can be no remnants of doubt, or regret for previous opportunities lost, when a childhood dream finally comes true.

There can be only joy.

And so, a joyful Simona Halep held the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen aloft for the first time, a first-time Grand Slam champion as she won the French Open Saturday.

Her smile illuminated Court Philippe-Chatrier, as she overcame a set-and-a-break deficit to triumph over No. 10 seed Sloane Stephens, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

“It’s a special moment. I was dreaming for this moment since actually I started to play tennis. It’s my favorite Grand Slam. I always said that if I’m going to win one, I want it to be here,” Halep said.

When Halep was a set and a break down in the second set, she thought to herself, “It’s lost.”

Another chance gone, her fourth in a major final and third in Paris, to break the Grand Slam ice. So the Romanian told herself to just enjoy the moment.

Halep

And then the switch flipped

Until then, Stephens was controlling many of the points. She was breaking them open with winners and defending beautifully whenever she needed to. And then, Halep changed the game.

HalepShe hit closer to the lines. She hit harder. And she came forward to hit a few swing volleys.

And after she put away the second set, she kept it up.

It was then that all the hard work in the first set paid off.

Stephens looked to be dancing on top of the clay, as she always does when she’s playing her best tennis.

But if it seemed effortless, the reality was that she had to work hard, run hard, to take that first set.

And halfway through that second set, as Halep’s legs clearly had several more kilometers in then, Stephens’s level dropped. Her feet no longer danced. She appeared to be starting to feel it physically.

“She raised her game, raised her level. Not much you can really do about that. I competed the best I could, and the better player won the match today,” Stephens said. “Not very many players ever get to a Grand Slam final. So the fact that I have won one and been in another final in such a short period of time, I’m very optimistic and very pleased with myself. I’m not satisfied, but I am proud of myself.”

By the time Halep was two breaks ahead in the third set, she may well have been past any negative thoughts from a year ago, on the same court.

On that June day 12 months ago, the Romanian led unseeded 20-year-old Latvian Jelena Ostapenko by a set and a break. But Halep played not to win, but hoping that the inexperienced Ostapenko would lose.

And Ostapenko wouldn’t lose.

“When I started to win games, I said that last year happened to me, same thing, I was set and a break up and I lost the match. So I said there is a chance to come back and win it,” Halep said. “So I believed in that, and my game was more relaxed. I could make more things on court, and that’s why I could win.”

Turning a difficult history around

Last year, Halep slept poorly before the match against Ostapenko. This year, she slept well. 

Still, the timelines of last year’s final and this year’s final were always in the forefront of her mind.

With the help of a sports psychologist, Halep has come to terms with the fact that her mind may always be her greatest foe when it comes to aspiring to her greatest triumphs.

Halep

The secret may have been not to try to eliminate what cannot be erased, but to find ways of accepting it, embracing it somehow, and overcoming it that way.

And all that hard work on her “best” weakness paid off on Saturday.

The point at 3-0 in the third set, a break point to put a double break in the bank, was the clincher. Halep’s legs got her to the drop shot, a backhand smash earned her the break. 

“I remember last year – I had last year and this year in my mind all match – when, at 3-3, I think, in the third set, she hit the net and the ball was going, like, five meters out and came back to my court. So I remember that,” Halep said. “I said, if I did this point, so has to be mine this match. I was confident after that.”

Different words from Coach Cahill

Coach Darren Cahill, the Aussie whose stern talk to his charge during the Miami Open last year during a coaching consult – and short-lived resignation – seems to have helped put Halep on the champion’s road, had the same advice for Halep before her first three major finals.

HalepHe told her that getting to the final was a big deal, and to just enjoy it.

This time, Cahill had different words. 

“You’re going to take it. You’re going to go on court and just thinking you have to take it, not waiting for the opponent to give it to you,” Halep said. “So he gave me confidence, and he put a little bit pressure on myself that I have to go there and win it. So maybe that’s why I won it, and it worked.”

It takes a top-shelf coach to understand that, for this fourth final, a little pressure was something that would work for Halep this time, not against her.

And if she didn’t take his advice in the first set, the 26-year-old put it resolutely into action to catch up – and then to cross the finish line.

For awhile now, Halep had been part of an accomplished but oft-maligned club, that of players who have been ranked No. 1 without winning a Grand Slam.

Amélie Mauresmo of France was in that club, before she finally got on the board. Neither Dinara Safina nor Jelena Jankovic ever won one. 

Caroline Wozniacki happily ripped off that scarlet “S” (for Slamless) when she defeated Halep to win the Australian Open in January.

And now, Halep has done it as well. Better still, she did it while ranked No. 1.

Halep

Nice, round numbers make it fate

The title comes exactly 40 years after her countrywoman Virginia Ruzici won Roland Garros, at age 23.

Ruzici, now a Paris resident, is Halep’s manager.

The title also comes exactly 10 years after Halep won the junior French Open girls’ singles title in 2008, and became the No. 1-ranked junior in the world.

She had, with one exception, been mostly a third-round loser at the junior Slams, although she had won numerous lower-grade titles.  

But Halep lost just one set in taking that 2008 title, to countrywoman Elena Bogdan in the final. And then, as French Open junior champion and world No. 1 junior, she ended her junior career.

This victory in Paris won’t end her pro career. In fact, it may well be a new beginning.

For there will no longer be any doubt – whether external, or in the recesses of Halep’s mind – that she’s good enough to win a Grand Slam title.

Now, she’s done it.

“I kissed (the trophy) many times to be sure that it’s going to stay in my heart forever. It’s heavy, it’s beautiful. And always when I was seeing the pictures with it, I dreamed to have it, to touch it,” Halep said. “And now it’s a special moment and I’m really happy that it’s mine.”

(Screenshots from FranceTV Sport)

Halep vs. Stephens a study in contrasts

PARIS – For Sloane Stephens, it seems to have all come so easily even if appearances are, more often than not, very deceiving.

For Simona Halep, it all has seemed such a struggle at times – mostly an internal struggle as she wrestles with the consequences of greatness.

But the one whose path seems more effortless was the No. 10 seed at this French Open. And the one who has battled so hard is the No. 1 player in the world.

And yet, it is Stephens who owns a Grand Slam title, won last year in her homeland as the unexpected culmination of a nearly year-long break because of a foot injury.

And it is Halep, a finalist a year ago, who seeks the elusive first Grand Slam title of her career. 

This is the fourth major final she will play, the third on the red clay in Paris.

Will the third time be the charm?

“I think I’m pretty calm on the court all the time, I’d say. I don’t get too up, too down. But I think that it has helped me in finals, but, yeah, it’s not something I really focus on,” Stephens said Saturday, before the big event Sunday at 3 p.m. Paris time.

“Well, for sure, I’m a little bit different because I have more experience. I’m more relaxed about this situation. But, you know, you never know. Every match is different, and I cannot expect anything for tomorrow. I just expect myself to give everything I have and to try to play my best tennis,” Halep said. “It’s nice that in 12 months I have played one more final in Melbourne. So I feel good. I feel great in this position. Hopefully tomorrow I will be better than previous ones.”

When Stephens gets to the final of a tournament, she wins. Literally. She always wins. She is 6-0 in her career when she gets in that position.

Against Halep, she has not been that successful. Although it has never been in a final.

Halep and Stephens last met in the semifinals in Cincinnati, just before the 2017 US Open. Halep took that one easily, 6-2, 6-1.

Head-to-head favors Halep

Of their seven meetings, the American has won just two.

Both came in the space of a month in 2013, when she defeated the Romanian in the second round of a small tuneup event in Hobart the week before the Australian Open. And then she defeated her again in the first round in Melbourne.

Both, at the time, were unseeded. 

Stephens had been ranked just inside the top 40 before those two events. Her run to the semifinals in Melbourne vaulted her into the top 20 and set the stage for outside expectations that, until last year’s triumph at Flushing Meadows, were never quite met.

Halep was just inside the top 50. A few weeks later, she fell out before she battled her way back.

Stephens
Halep practicing on Court 18 before the start of Roland Garros. Little did she know that, despite being the No. 1-ranked woman in the world, she’d end up relegated there for a big match in the second week. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Since then, Halep has won four straight meetings between the two.

She defeated Stephens in the fourth round in Paris four years ago, on her way to her first major final. And she has beaten her three times since then. All three came on hard courts in the U.S., notably in the semifinals of Cincinnati last summer as Stephens was making her red-hot run through the American summer hard-court circuit.

But that head-to-head doesn’t mean much to Halep.

“I don’t want to think about that because, as I said many times, it’s a different match, different situation. Both of us will be ready to give everything we have,” she said. “But I believe in my chance. I believe that I have the game to win the match. But you never know. I just want to wait and to see how it goes.”

Injury break changed everything

Someone once said of Stephens that the (relative) burden she must bear is how good a tennis player she is. She knew early on that she could take the court, under any conditions, against most players and beat them on talent alone.

But to win the big titles, to get to the weekends of tournaments, you have to get past equally talented players.

And it was unclear whether the gifted American was prepared to pay the price – day after day after day of grinding it out in practice and fighting for every point – to hit those heights. The effort, the commitment, seemed to ride a wave at times.

Losing nearly a year of her career, after foot surgery and rehab, certainly allowed for a plenty of time for reflection.

“After not playing for 11 months, it’s some great results. I’m really pleased with that. Obviously a lot of hard work went into it, a lot of adversity, a lot of ups and downs. A lot of emotional, like, you know, ‘Am I ever going to be the same? Am I ever going to play good again at a high-enough level? Am I a protected ranking? ‘

“There were so many things that went into it. And I think now I’ve kind of – I have matured a little bit and have recognized the opportunities when they have been presented. I think the most important thing is that I have taken those opportunities and done a lot with them.”

Even after Stephens won the US Open and didn’t do much the rest of the season, as she processed the triumph and recovered from the physical toll it took on her after so long away, people asked those same questions again.

Perhaps, because of that glorious talent, those questions may always be asked when she doesn’t win.

But Stephens seems well-equipped not to dwell too long on the expectations of others.

No. 1, and No. 1 in the U.S.

Regardless of the result, Halep has secured her No. 1 spot through this tournament. A victory could extend her lead over No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki to more than 1,200 points going into the grass-court season.

And regardless of the result, Stephens will become the No. 1 American for the first time in her career.

With two women named Venus and Serena lurking at the top during Stephens’ entire career, that wasn’t really an option and may not even have been a thought.

Win or lose, Stephens will rise to a career-best ranking of No. 4.

Venus Williams had been at No. 9. But even though she was a surprise first-round loser, she will remain there.

Serena Williams will jump from No. 451 to No. 185 with her effort in Paris, cut short in the fourth round because of a pectoral injury.

Madison Keys, the good friend Stephens defeated in the semifinals in Paris, will remain at No. 10.

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.

report
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.

Speedy, steady Stephens wins Miami Open

MIAMI, Fla. – To pick apart the weaknesses in French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko’s game, you need a few specific skills.

You have to be consistent, and willing to change up the pace and spin to throw off her rhythm.

You have to be fast, to run down enough laser shots to lure her into going for a little too much. And you have to be aggressive on serve return, to make the 20-year-old Latvian pay for those 66 mile-an-hour serves that beg to be punished.

Most of all, you have to be able to shake off the large numbers of winners that she will hit, win or lose, hot or not.

American Sloane Stephens, herself a Grand Slam champion at the US Open last summer, did all of those things.

She hit just six winners, and made a lot of errors. But she exposed the holes in Ostapenko’s game with her legs and her patience, winning the Miami Open final 7-6 (5), 6-1 Saturday.

“I knew that I was just going to have to run a lot of balls down. The way that she plays is she has a very aggressive style, and sometimes you can’t outhit her or outrun her. You just kind of have to accept that she’s going to hit some really great shots. I think that’s what I did best today,” Stephens said.

“When she was hitting great shots, I just was, like, Too good, and moved on. I think that’s what helped me kind of get through that breaker. I just accepted that some good shots were going to be hit and just didn’t harp on it too much.”

It is the second-biggest title of Stephens’s career after the momentum win in New York. Both have come on American soil. In fact, four of Stephens’s six titles have come in the U.S. She won in Charleston in 2016 and in Washington, D.C. in 2015.

Notably, Stephens has made six finals in her career – and won the title every time.

Too many errors, not enough winners

Ostapenko hit 25 winners. But she made 48 unforced errors – 29 in the first set alone, more than enough to give Stephens the set just on her errors alone. 

She’s always going to make errors. But if the winners number approaches the errors number, Ostapenko is in her comfort zone. On this day, she was not.

“I’m playing the worst tennis ever,” Ostapenko moaned to coach David Taylor when he came out for an on-court consult with his charge already down a set and 4-1. Actually, she was not. Stephens simply had the tools to disarm her.

The Latvian was very gracious at the net afterwards, and in her trophy presentation speech. For her, the months after the French Open title have featured some bumps in the road.

But at this Miami Open, Ostapenko defeated No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina and No. 9 Petra Kvitova in straight sets. And she won all five tiebreaks she played. She also withstood a hearty challenge from American qualifier Danielle Collins in the semifinals.

The inexperienced Collins was somewhat of a gift draw at that stage of the tournament. But she had momentum on her side, and even had a set point against Ostapenko in the first set.

“Comparing to the other matches I watched her play this week, she was moving really well. She was changing the pace. She was serving sometimes kick, sometimes going for it. I think she’s a great player,” Ostapenko said.

“Sometimes I was going aggressive when I didn’t have to. In the first set it was working pretty well. Then some moments I think I was  – I stepped a little bit back. I had to step forward, like, in the court to play the balls in the court so take away time from her, which I didn’t, so probably that’s why I lost the match.”

Finally in the top 10

Stephens, who needed some time after that US Open win six months ago to rest, process, get healthy and reload, certainly wasn’t ready in Australia two months ago. But she hould find this title gives her wings going into the meaty part of the schedule.

“I made sure after Australia I got in the best shape possible. I really just focused on myself and made sure that I was the best version of me,” she sad. ‘Whatever people said, whatever, it is what it is, but now I’m here and I have this beautiful trophy, and no one will ever be able to take that away from me, so I’m just going to walk with my head high and, you know, embrace it.”

Stephens will need wings, given her predilection for home soil. But at the same time, she has everything to gain. The 25-year-old didn’t even start playing until Wimbledon last year, after foot surgery. She has just 11 computer ranking points to defend until the Rogers Cup in Montreal, in August.

There’s a fair gap between No. 10 and the top players; for example, she’s more than 1,000 points behind No. 8 Venus Williams. But there is a move to be made, and Stephens’s game can translate well to clay.

She has played the French Open five times, and four times she reached the round of 16. Each time, she lost to a player who was no worse than the No. 6 seed. And all four of those players were either former French Open champions or finalists.

Next up, the Volvo Car Open

Ostapenko hasn’t entered any events until Stuttgart, the last week of April.

But Stephens will immediately head to Charleston, where she won the tournament (and the Volvo) the last time she played it in 2016.

As the No. 4 seed, Stephens will have a first-round bye, and a few days to regroup. She’ll meet the winner of a match between Bernarda Pera and Jana Cepelova in the second round.

Now, of course, the US Open champion will arrive in Mercedes, as the brand’s new ambassador. 

(Screenshots from WTATV)

Bouchard and Stephens to team up for Oz dubs

The D.C. Dream Team (okay, we’re just having a little fun with this) is getting the band back together.

Genie Bouchard and Sloane Stephens, who shocked the world by reaching the doubles final at the Citi Open in Washington D.C. last summer, will get the band back together for the Australian Open.

The two share an agent, John Tobias. And as of this week, they also share a clothing sponsor, Nike.

Bouchard is not playing doubles this week in Hobart.

Stephens, who is making her 2018 debut, is paired up with French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in Sydney.

D.C. Dream Run

The first-time team had a great run in D.C. in early August, falling to Renata Voracova and Shuko Aoyama in the final. They upset the No. 3 seeds in the first round. And in the semifinals, they overcame a 1-6 first set to beat the No. 1 seeds, Sania Mirza and Monica Niculescu, in the match tiebreak.

It was only Stephens’s second tournament back after missing nearly a year with a foot problem that required surgery. She lost in the first round of the singles to Simona Halep. But the summer ended well, as she won the US Open.

Bouchard had another great run in doubles later in the season, in her final tournament of the year in Luxembourg. The Canadian teamed up with Kirsten Flipkens, and reached the final. 

 

No Fed Cup for Bouchard, Stephens

If there were going to be any suspense in the coming months about whether Canadian Genie Bouchard would return to Fed Cup action in the first round of the 2018 event, it was quashed on Monday.

The New York Open, which is the newly relocated Memphis Open men’s ATP Tour event, announced that Bouchard along with US Open champion Sloane Stephens, John McEnroe and James Blake will be taking part in a tournament-opening exhibition Feb. 11.

On Feb. 11, the Canadian Fed Cup team will be playing the second day of its first-round World Group II tie in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. 

The US team, of which Stephens was a part last weekend in a victorious effort against Belarus in the championship final, will be in Asheville, NC hosting the Netherlands in its first-round tie.

Bouchard

So that’s that.

No Fed Cup, no Doha

Bouchard last played Fed Cup in April 2015 in Montreal, when Canada faced the same Romania team (minus Simona Halep) to remain in World Group I.

Ranked No. 7 in the world at the time, the Canadian lost her singles matches against Alexandra Dulgheru and Andreea Mitu.

The week following Fed Cup week is the Premier 5 tournament in Doha, UAE. And the appearance could cost Bouchard that tournament as well.

The Canadian’s current ranking stands at No. 81, and she has over 300 ranking points to defend in January at Sydney and the Australian Open. She would most likely need to play the qualifying (unless Doha is planning to give her a wild card). 

Obviously, with this commitment, she couldn’t be in the Middle East that same weekend to play it.

US – Belarus tied 1-1 after Day 1

On paper, the USA are massive favorites to win the Fed Cup final over upstart Belarus.

But on court, when tennis players are toiling for their country, a lot of things can happen.

So the fact that home-team Belarus and the U.S. are tied 1-1 after the first day of singles Saturday in Minsk is a surprise, but not a total shock.

Coco Vandeweghe, the American No. 1 who entered the top 10 in the WTA Tour rankings for the first time earlier this week, opened with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Aliaksandra Sasnovich.

There was, as Vandeweghe put it, a “brain fart” when she was up a set and a break in the second set. But she quickly put it right.

The second rubber, between US Open champion Sloane Stephens and up-and-coming teenager Aryna Sabalenka, was a different story.

Stephens, whose Open aftermath has been like one big hangover, has yet to win a match since she defeated Madison Keys in the final in New York. Then again, she has played just four in the nearly two months since then.

While the official site’s “gamer” made no mention of the thick wrap below the American’s left knee, it clearly seemed to be an issue in Belarus’s 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 win.

Slam champ vs. up-and-comer

Sabalenka is a talented but raw up-and-comer who reached the final in Tianjin, China last month. She was up in both sets against the more experienced Maria Sharapova, but lost both.

BelarusMuch of the match simply wasn’t in Stephens’ hands. There were 31 winners and 57 unforced errors directly attributed to Sabalenka; that’s about a third of the total points right there.

Some shots, Stephens wouldn’t have been able to chase down no matter how healthy she was. But the American’s speed and silky movement are a cornerstone of her game. Against an erratic opponent like Sabalenka, she might well have gotten enough balls back into play to force even more errors.

But she wasn’t able to, even if she put in a solid effort to get back into it in a solid second set.

She gave her opponent and the occasion all the credit. 

“We’re playing Fed Cup, so anything goes,” Stephens said. “I want to play like that. That was insane. Playing for her country, the crowd behind her, she played great.”

For Sabalenka, there was plenty of emotion.

“I don’t know, I feel like disappointed, was a really hard fight for me. I felt really bad during the match. My mentality. I don’t know what happened. I feel all these emotions. Finally I won. I’m just happy,” she said during a post-match interview on court. “During the game I didn’t think she’s 15 (in the world) I was thinking I have to win because my team was 0-1 and I have to make the score 1-1, so that’s all what I had on my mind during the match.

“First time I cry after the match. Actually big win for me,” she added. “It’s like it’s (the) final, it’s home, and you play against America. They won it 17 times. That’s why the emotions are coming really more. I didn’t feel it before.”

Decisive Sunday looms

There was a small but vocal American fan presence in Minsk Saturday. But the Belarussians were ebullient in their support of their own. (Fed Cup livestream)

The second and final day begins at 6 a.m. EST (3 a.m. PST) and will have both reverse singles and the doubles as the fifth rubber.

First up will be the battle between the two No. 1s – Vandeweghe and Sabalenka.

It will be loud, and feisty. And the fascinating dynamic will be to see how the relatively inexperienced Sabalenka reacts against an opponent who has a much more dynamic, cocky on-court presence in Vandweghe.

Then, with one of the squads up 2-1 and looking for one more victory to clinch, US captain Kathy Rinaldi has a decision to make.

Can Stephens, under the current conditions, take care of Sasnovich? Or does she substitute in Shelby Rogers or Alison Riske?

Both are solid; neither, obviously, have Stephens’s resumé.

Doubles decider?

And, in the case of a fifth and Cup-deciding doubles rubber, what happens then?

The U.S. are sorely missing the injured Bethanie Mattek-Sands, recovering from a serious knee injury suffered at Wimbledon. She’s one of the best doubles players in the world. 

Belarus
Vandeweghe, the highest-ranked American in both singles and doubles, will have a huge say on the outcome of the Fed Cup final (Screenshot: FedCup stream)

Vandeweghe has the best doubles ranking and the most big-event experience in doubles. She has a little experience with Riske, more with Rogers, with whom she played at Indian Wells and the US Open this year and won a $50,000 on grass back in 2015.

For Belarus, the options aren’t that great.

The two other team members, 25-year-old Lidziya Marozava and 19-year-old Vera Lapko, are ranked No. 69 (a career high) and No. 102 in doubles, respectively. 

But they have never played together.

Marozava last played doubles in Fed Cup in 2013, but with Sasnovich.

How different would this tie look with a fit and match tough Victoria Azarenka playing for Belarus? It seemed, when the former No. 1 returned to action during the grass-court season this summer, that this is where we would be, five months later.

But because of her well-documented custody issues, it didn’t work out that way.

(Screenshots from the ITF’s Fed Cup streaming service)

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. “

Venus, Stephens fly flag in double QF win

NEW YORK – Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens did their part.

You’re up, Coco Vandeweghe and Madison Keys.

The 37-year-old Williams and the 24-year-old Stephens both survived third-set tiebreak wins by near-identical scores Tuesday at the US Open.

The fact that both advanced to the women’s singles semifinals, and will play each other, guarantees there will be at least one American woman in Saturday’s final.

In the day session, Stephens continued her wondrous month of winning with a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (4) victory over No. 16 seed Anastasija Sevastova. It is a run that has taken her from outside the top 900 in July to just outside the top 30 with her effort here.

She’s already almost all the way back to where she was before a foot injury suffered last summer required surgery in January. 

“A month ago, before I started winning a lot of matches, I was really worried, about my protected ranking, not having enough  tournaments, not being able to play,” Stephens said during her on-court interview. “Once I realized my life is good, I play tennis, I have fun every day, that relieved a lot of stress. I was able to play loose, play my game and – Bam! Semifinals.”

Stephens calm, cool and eager

StephensThe tennis during her win over Sevastova of Latvia wasn’t necessarily the best. But it was very good at times.

And the drama was topnotch as Stephens looked to be running out of energy in the middle of the second set.

But she fought. Calm-looking on the outside, there was nothing of the pre-absence Stephens who sometimes could look as though she wasn’t as invested in the outcome as maybe she should have been.

She was down a break in the third set – very nearly, two breaks. Stephens got that back, and then went down a break again.

The American kept running, even when her legs were probably telling her to stop. She fought as she never used to fight. And she won.

“Yeah, it’s incredible, amazing. Like I said before, if someone would have told me when I started at Wimbledon that I’d be in the semifinals or making, well, three semifinals back-to-back, I would have said they’re crazy. Just happy to be playing really well and happy that my foot is good and I don’t have any pain and my body is holding up,” she said. 

Venus v Kvitova: perseverance personified

Noisy Arthur Ashe Stadium was one-way traffic for Stephens’ match against Sevastova.

For the first night match, Williams had to face off against Petra Kvitova, already a popular player and one whose emotional and near-miraculous comeback from a horrific home invasion has struck a chord with tennis fans.

Still, this is America’s Slam. And Venus, at 37, perhaps has never been more appreciated or revered as she has thrived through some personal trials of her own.

Stephens

The tennis was superb, as it has so often been when these two power players have met before. Both women were on the attack – and both were fighting on defense with everything they had. Most of the points were short, and the velocity was breathtaking.

Up a set but down 0-3 in the second, the roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium was closed because of some expected thunderstorms. All that did was ensure the place would be even noisier by the time the players were deep into the third set.

By the end of it, Williams had several chances to break Kvitova and close it out at 5-6 in the third. She had an open court for her forehand, but she missed it in the net. She had a very makeable return on a second serve, but sent it sailing long.

So the momentum coming into the deciding tiebreaker was not with Williams.

Champion rises at key moment

But like a champion, Williams regained it with the snap of a finger and played an absolutely brilliant decider to win 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (2). She lost her visor in the middle of it. No matter. She was called for a foot fault on match point. No matter.

“Our last few matches, I mean, if you can imagine the quality of this match was high, I would say the others were even higher. A lot of times in those matches I just felt a little unlucky. Like she would hit these amazing shots out of nowhere, and all I could do was say, ‘well done’. I never really did anything wrong in those matches,” Williams said. “Sometimes you have opportunities and sometimes you take them and you don’t But it’s not like you get opportunity after opportunity after opportunity in these sorts of matches. You have to take the ones you have. I was happy to have a little more luck today, actually.”

Arthur Ashe Stadium opened 20 years ago, and that was Williams’ first US Open, as a 17-year-old. She made the final, losing to Martina Hingis. Williams won the single title in 2000 and 2001, but hasn’t come close again since making the final in 2002 – 15 years ago. She has reached the semis only twice since then.

Reaching the Australian Open final earlier this year was already quite a feat. Williams has won more matches at Grand Slam tournaments this year than any other player.

But winning in New York, at 37? Off the charts. 

Can she win two more?

“I think she can. I hope so, actually,” Kvitova said, smiling.

“Sport is, you know, a little microcosm of life, and it shows the human spirit, just being out there on the court, fighting against all odds. If you’re down, you keep going. Great champions came back from injuries or circumstances they could never have planned for,” Williams said. “You never know whose life you’ll touch just by being your best.”

Two more Americans Wednesday

Madison Keys and Coco Vandeweghe, the two Americans in the second set of quarterfinals Thursday, will have a tough act to follow after what Williams and Stephens did on Tursday.

StephensBut four Americans in the semifinals?

The younger folks might not remember. But for Williams, when she was coming up in the game, it was situation normal.

Perhaps, if you stick around long enough, everything good comes around again.

“There was a time in tennis, when all my rivals were American. (Jennifer) Capriati and (Lindsay) Davenport and Monica Seles. So I love to see these young Americans coming up playing big,” Williams said during her on-court interview after the match. “I would love to have that again – top four, top five playing in the semifinals.

“That would be huge.”