NEW YORK— “Breathe. Swing. Move your feet.” Is there a T-shirt with those words on it yet?
That was the extremely simple, extremely effective advice that Sloane Stephens’ coach, Kamau Murray, gave to her before she walked onto the court for her first Grand Slam final on Sunday.
Those three commands worked because they reminded Stephens that, whatever nerves she might be feeling, her job on this day wasn’t a complicated one. The fact that she was facing one of the sport’s hardest hitters in Madison Keys gave the speedy, steady Sloane a decisive advantage: If worst came to worst, and she began to wilt under the pressure, she could always use her legs and keep making balls, two things that she can do in her sleep. It would be Keys’ job to take the risks.
“I was very nervous,” Stephens said, “but I knew that whatever I was feeling, she was probably feeling, too.”
It turned out that Stephens had nothing to worry about. She quickly settled into an imperturbable groove a few feet behind the baseline. She hit heavy and deep, moved Keys from side to side and returned whatever rockets were launched at her. No need to pull any triggers or aim for any lines or try any high-degree-of-difficulty finesse shots. Sloane’s first two service games were love holds that took a little more than a minute.
Instead it was Keys who had the complicated job of trying to win points outright. Her coach, Lindsay Davenport, told her that she wanted her to “take a lot of balls out of the air.” While Keys can pummel a swing volley, it’s a shot that requires a player to be loose rather than tight. With Stephens getting everything back, Keys said she only grew more anxious as she tried, and failed, to figure out a strategy for winning points.