Stephens and Keys turned the future of U.S. tennis into the present

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Madison Keys blew away CoCo Vandeweghe, 6-1, 6-2, to set up a US Open final with Sloane Stephens. (Photos by Anita Aguilar)

NEW YORK—“For American tennis, there’s no question marks,” Sloane Stephens said with a grin on Thursday night at the US Open. For the first time in a long time, the statement was indisputable. Stephens, 24, had just finished beating Venus Williams in the evening’s first semifinal. An hour or so later, her friend Madison Keys, 22, would do the same to Coco Vandeweghe in the second semifinal. Suddenly, just like that, in the matter of a two-week span, the future of the U.S. women’s game had become the present.

For nearly a decade, tennis fans in this country had been marveling at the talent and potential of Stephens and Keys, hoping they would fulfill it, and occasionally wondering if our hopes were misplaced.

Yes, Sloane had an elegant game and was lightning fast. Yes, Madison had the easiest power some of us had ever seen. Yes, there were days when you would watch them pull off a ridiculously athletic move and we’d shake our heads and tell ourselves they were the real deal. And yes, when they made breakthrough runs to the semifinals at the Australian Open in 2013 and 2015, respectively, we made wild speculations about how many major titles they might win, or when they would crack the Top 10.

But as their rankings bounced up and down, and injuries stalled their progress, and neither of them reached another Grand Slam semi, the question marks remained. Did Sloane actually like tennis? Could Madison play two good sets in a row? Were they hitters, rather than players? Did they have the grit to win the close ones? In reaching their first major finals in the same night, Stephens and Keys answered all of those questions.

“I just don’t want anyone to ask me about the state of American tennis ever again!”  a smiling Sloane said afterward.

Appropriately for a slugger and a sprinter, Keys and Stephens took opposite paths to victory in their semifinals. One match was dramatic and competitive, the other was a blowout. One was won with insane defense, the other with insane shot-making. Both were equally impressive in their own ways, and both ended up being career-changing victories.

The question for Stephens was whether she could stand up to Venus, the resident legend of U.S. tennis in such an important match. Sloane won the first set easily, but got a tight at the start of the second and allowed Venus to pounce. At the start of the third, Stephens jumped out to another lead, only to let Venus catch up.

Now, surely, Sloane would finally cave and let the tougher competitor blow by her. Instead, she bore down, went on the attack, saved break points, and helped give Open fans the set of the tournament.

The moment of truth came at 4-5, 30-30. Stephens was ready for it. After a long rally, she came up the shot of the night, a backhand pass that she seemed to pluck from thin air and send straight down the line for a winner.

“That was good, huh?” Sloane said later, a little amazed by her own handiwork.

It was good enough to lift Stephens to an entirely new plane, one she might not have realized she could reach. Making stunning gets and an even more stunning lob on the run, Sloane lost just one more point in closing out Williams, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5.

“I tried to get my racquet on every ball,” Stephens said. “I mean, why not go for it?”

Five months ago, Stephens was in a cast after having foot surgery. One month ago, she was ranked in the 900s. But her time away may have been the best thing that could have happened to her. During those months, she came to an important realization: All of the things she thought was missing by playing tennis, those things that “normal” people do? She found out that they really couldn’t compare to playing tennis, and that maybe being exceptional is better than being normal.

When she came back, she had no choice but to work her way back up.

“I was so rusty, and I couldn’t run,” Stephens said of her return. “The only thing I really had left was fight.”

Now Sloane knows: Fight was all she needed all along.

What did Madison Keys need all along? Through the middle rounds at the Open, she needed a little help from the crowd. The fans in Ashe lifted her to three-set comeback wins over Elena Vesnina and Elina Svitolina. But by the time she took the court against Vandeweghe, Keys didn’t need any help from anyone.

From first game to last, Keys played crushingly clean tennis. There were none of the lags and dips and hiccups and mood swings we’ve always seen from her. There was just that easy power in all of its glory. Keys hit 25 winners against just nine errors, and won 62 points to Vandeweghe’s 36. She made her usual power shots, but she also made touch shots and defensive shots and shots on the run. This was the tennis many had dreamed of seeing from Keys. In the 66 minutes she was out there for her 6-1, 6-2 win, she made Arthur Ashe Stadium, where she has been ensconced for the last week, look like her second home.

“It was one of those days where I came out and I was kind of in a zone, and I just forced myself to stay there,” Keys said.

Like Stephens, Keys had surgery (on her left wrist) this year, after the French Open. But she was determined to play Wimbledon just three weeks later, and she ignored advice from those around her to take the safe road and skip it. As with Sloane, the break made Keys appreciate what she does for a living in a way she never had before.

“Since then, it’s been a big weight off my shoulders, and I’m playing really free,” Keys said. “More than anything, I’m really, really enjoying my time on the court. I think that’s been a massive part of why I have been playing well.”

You go away from the game and come back hungrier and fresher. You play in front of home fans who believe in you even when you might not believe in yourself. You win one close match, and start to think you can win them all. You turn the future of American tennis into the present. And you get to go for your first Grand Slam title.

Any questions?

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