2017-09-09 13:08:03
On Tennis: The Time Has Come, at Last, for Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens

13:08, September 09 128 0

That Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys have made it to a Grand Slam singles final is no surprise to anyone who has followed their careers from the start.

“Everybody always knew they had the ability,” said Mary Joe Fernandez, their former Fed Cup captain and Olympic coach. “It was just a question of where and when.”

What is shocking is the timing: Stephens and Keys, good friends and now prominent rivals, have reached Saturday’s United States Open final in grand style in a season that began with them exchanging supportive text messages as they recovered from surgery.

“That’s the really impressive thing, that both of them are having their hardest season in terms of injuries, and yet they’ve been able to do it this fast,” Fernandez said. “I didn’t expect it come this quickly.”

Of course, it doesn’t feel nearly so fast to Keys, 22, and Stephens, 24. Their talent and potential were recognized and nurtured early. They have been traveling the world and chasing tennis balls since their midteens, well aware that breakthroughs were possible as the agents circled and the expectations rose.

Keys, who long trained at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., won her first WTA main-draw singles match at 14, making her the youngest to do so since Martina Hingis. Keys won a match at the U.S. Open at 16.

“When Mad was with us from age 10 to 17, we saw the live arm, and it’s a God-given talent — you can’t teach it,” Chris Evert told me on Friday, the morning after Keys dismantled CoCo Vandeweghe, 6-1, 6-2, in little more than an hour in their semifinal. “I always felt it was a matter of when, not if.”

But Keys and Stephens have had to learn the hard way to stay in the moment and resist compressing time.

Asked well after midnight what she would tell her younger self, Keys (whose default mode is sardonic) thought for a moment and answered earnestly.

“I would mostly say maybe don’t take those losses so hard,” she said. “Things eventually work out a little bit better.”

She has had plenty of disappointments and many tears. I recall interviewing Keys in Paris at the French Open in 2013 after she lost to Monica Puig in the second round in damp, heavy conditions that blunted her phenomenal power and left her spraying ground strokes to all the wrong places.

Overcome with emotion and fighting unsuccessfully to keep her composure, Keys, then 18, was succinct when we spoke about her implosion.

“It must be hard to be patient when you know you have it in you,” I suggested.

“Yes,” she acknowledged, her broad face full of a perfectionist’s pain.

But the stars of tennis — with its nearly year-round tour and global grind — are clearly onto something at this stage. Less can eventually lead to more, particularly if you’ve already put in your 10,000 hours to achieve mastery.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have prospered this season after returning reinvigorated from extended injury breaks. Now Keys and Stephens have reached their first major finals after having had time to reassess their sport and its vagaries from a distance. Watch out for Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, both dealing with injuries, in January.

“I think you take a lot of pressure off of yourself. I know for me last year, my only focus was to get to Singapore,” Keys said, referring to the elite eight-women WTA finals. “I kind of lost sight of how much I actually loved the game because it was just every week, it was just chasing points. That’s all I could focus on.”

Keys qualified for Singapore, but late last year, she had the first of two operations on her left wrist to ease what had been near-constant pain.

“Being away from the game and just remembering why I love competing and all of that, I think it helped me tremendously,” Keys said.

The book on Keys among coaches has long been that if an opponent can weather the storm generated by her power game, she will eventually stop finding the lines because her margin for error is so slim and her nerves are still brittle.

But there was no respite for Vandeweghe on Thursday night. Even after Keys left the court for five minutes for treatment with a 6-1, 4-1 lead, she returned with her upper right leg wrapped and resumed striking the ball with tremendous force and precision.

“It was just a case for CoCo of hanging in there and waiting for Madison to cool off a little bit, but she never cooled off,” said Pat Cash, the former Wimbledon champion now coaching Vandeweghe.

He contends that if Keys can remain in that state of grace, Saturday’s final will be more one-way traffic.

“That’s Serena sort of standard of tennis she’s playing,” he said. “But Grand Slam finals are different. Sloane gets a lot of balls back. She’ll play a different style of play, go a lot further back in the court, roll the balls back, chase a lot down. But if Madison serves the way she did against CoCo, then I can’t see anybody touching her.”

Stephens won their only tour-level match, 6-4, 6-2, in the second round of the Miami Open on a blustery day in 2015 when Stephens was ranked 45th and Keys 18th.

The stakes are rather higher Saturday, and this final is further confirmation of the youth movement that is underway with Serena Williams still on maternity leave.

Williams, who will turn 36 on Sept. 26, has not played a tournament since defeating her sister Venus in the Australian Open final in January. In Serena’s absence, Jelena Ostapenko, 20, won the French Open; Garbiñe Muguruza, 23, won Wimbledon; and now Keys or Stephens will win the U.S. Open. Muguruza will also rise to No. 1 in the rankings on Monday.

Other members of the younger generation are surely taking note, including the uncommonly large number of promising young American women. Many of those are African-American, including 13-year-old Cori Gauff and 16-year-old Dalayna Hewitt, who played on the Grandstand on Thursday night in the third round of the junior tournament while Stephens and Venus Williams, two African-Americans who already are tennis stars, were playing in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“It was like all the planets were aligned,” said Leslie Allen, an African-American player who broke into the top 20 in 1981 and was on site Thursday night.

Martin Blackman, general manager for player development at the United States Tennis Association, said he was flashing back to Althea Gibson, who 60 years ago became the first black woman to win the U.S. Championships in 1957.

“I thought about Althea Gibson and about Zina Garrison and then about Venus and Serena,” Blackman said. “There’s a ripple effect for sure.”

Keys, whose mother is white and whose father is black, told me once that she did not identify with a particular race. “It’s something that’s always there obviously, but I’m very much right in the middle,” she said in a 2015 interview. “I don’t really think of it. I don’t really identify myself as white or African-American.”

But she is viewed as a member of the black community by many in that community. The sport and the U.S. Open have clearly come a long way. Some African-American fans on Thursday night acknowledged that having three black women in the U.S. Open semifinals was as important to them as having four American women playing for a spot in the final.

“It is a matter of history being seen here,” said Vina McKay, a fan who traveled from Dallas with her husband, Derrick. “Black people have come so far in this country, and just to see us reach this type of level is mind-blowing.”

Though Saturday’s final will hardly be an Evert-Martina Navratilova contrast in playing styles, Keys and Stephens are no mirror images, either.

Keys has the better, more explosive serve and the more attack-minded approach. Stephens has no shortage of power when she chooses to summon it. But Stephens, whose father, John Stephens — who died in 2009 — was an N.F.L. running back, is by many estimations the fastest player on the WTA Tour, prone to roaming much farther behind the baseline than Keys.

Stephens has displayed a newfound resolve since returning to the tour in July from foot surgery. Ranked in the 900s last month, she is guaranteed to return to the top 25 by reaching the final and will be back in the top 20 if she wins.

“Before the injury, Sloane was nonchalant and blasé with body language,” Evert said. “Now she’s fighting. She’s not afraid to put herself on the line. She’s not passive. She’s being more aggressive early in the point. I give Mad the edge, but Sloane has surprised me so much this tournament.”

Stephens and Keys admit that they have surprised themselves in New York as they prepare to make their Grand Slam final debuts against each other. Before arriving here, Keys had won just two rounds in Grand Slam singles play this season, and Stephens had won none.

But it is no surprise that they eventually earned this opportunity. They each have a rare gift for a very tricky game, and they are not teenagers anymore.

“They weren’t ready before — they just weren’t,” Fernandez said. “Now they are.”