PARIS—On Tuesday, after her masterfully varied quarterfinal win over Daria Kasatkina, I compared to Sloane Stephens to a boxer who understood exactly when to throw a cross, exactly when to jab, exactly when to back up against the ropes and roll with the punches.
On Thursday, during her 6-4, 6-4 semifinal win over Madison Keys, another comparison to a ring-based entertainment product came to mind: Stephens’ ability to control the rallies from well behind the baseline was like a tennis version of that most mysterious of pro-wrestling moves, the “sleeper hold.” Her performance was an act of defusion so subtle that you may have been left wondering how she carried it out.
It left hardly a trace in the statistics. Stephens hit no aces and only nine winners. She made just 63 percent of her first serves, and had no winners on her return of serve. Yet she was broken only once, when she served for the match at 5-2, and she faced just three break points. Keys, meanwhile hit seven aces and 25 winners, yet was never in the match.
WATCH—Sloane Stephens reaches the French Open final:
Going by the stat sheet, the reason for this would seem obvious: Keys made 41 unforced errors. But just how “unforced” were some of those errors? As she has all tournament, Stephens did her share of work to force them by playing an impenetrable brand of tennis, one that blends offense and defense until there’s no difference between the two. She seemed to have an instinct for what would work in any situation.
When Keys hit a ball hard to Sloane’s forehand side, Sloane slid into it with her back foot, kept her stance open, and sent a high, deep, heavy ball crosscourt. When Keys hit a ball hard to her backhand side, Sloane slid toward it, took one hand off the racquet, and sliced a ball back high and deep with no pace.
If Keys went up the middle, Sloane could slap he ball back at her, or loop it back near the baseline—she hit a lot of balls on or hear the baseline today. If Keys left a ball hanging in the middle of the court, Sloane could sneak a down-the-line backhand past her, or knock off a forehand winner to either corner. And if Keys tried a drop shot, Sloane was there to poke a crosscourt angle or flip a lob over Keys’ head.
“It’s really tough to get any ball by her,” Keys said of Stephens, “but especially today she was neutralizing so well, and she was hitting so many deep, heavy balls that I really felt like I was having to go for a lot.
“Just one of those days where I think she played incredibly well.”
WATCH—Stephens' on-court comments after the match:
Watching these two Americans in a conspicuously quiet Chatrier today, I also wondered what effect the friendship between them has on their matches. The vibe from both was low-profile and self-contained, but it’s Keys who probably needs to play with a little more fire, because she’s the one who needs to attack, to be proactive, to take risks, to pump herself up, to generate momentum. At the same time, Sloane needs to do the opposite, to stay even keel, stay steady, and keep Keys at bay.
“It’s never easy,” Stephens said. “It’s never easy playing someone from your country, let alone someone you actually, like, care about and you’re friends with.
“I think more when I play Maddy, it’s just—on the court it’s very competitive. We’re always very competitive. But it’s a little weird. There’s not as much, ‘Come ons’ and things like that. We have a lot of respect for each other. It’s a little different in that aspect.”
On Saturday, Stephens will play for the French Open title. She has yet to lose a final in her career, and the reason she stated today makes sense.
“I think once I get going in a tournament, I’m pretty consistent, which is good,” she said. “I just try to keep going through the finals and just compete to the very last match.”
Sloane has found a deep groove at Roland Garros, but she’s left hardly any tracks in the clay.
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