Madison Keys served at 5-all in the third set. Her first-round match at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome, versus her good friend Sloane Stephens, was by now well into its third hour. In the previous game, Keys had twice reached match point, but been stymied by fine serves from Stephens. There’d already been 13 total service breaks in this match. When Keys lined a forehand into the net to go down love-15, a 14th appeared plausible. Another factor was the history of this rivalry, Stephens having won four of their five matches—including the most recent, a 6-4, 6-4 victory last month in Charleston.

Just like that, Keys took eight straight points to win the match. If at one level the ending sequence was jarring, at another it was inspired, flavored by Keys’ familiar big forehand and late-stage sharp footwork. In a match laden with many sequences of streaky tennis from each player, Keys emerged the winner, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.

The rollercoaster-like nature of this match was clear from the start. A lethargic Stephens dropped the first three games. Unable to build off that lead, Keys dropped the next three. At 3-all, Keys serving, the two played a nine-minute game, Stephens at last winning it to go up 4-3—only to be broken in the next game. At 4-all, Keys rallied from love-40 to deuce, but dropped her serve yet again. Backed by crisp movements and solid shot selection, Stephens at last closed out the first set. Keys gathered herself and won the second, 6-2.

Stephens had only gotten into the main draw as a lucky loser after being beaten in the qualifying. Currently ranked No. 65, Stephens arrived in Rome 5-7 this year.

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In a Rome clash full of shifts, Madison Keys topples Sloane Stephens

In a Rome clash full of shifts, Madison Keys topples Sloane Stephens

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It’s also been a frustrating 2021 for the 23rd-ranked Keys, who prior to Rome was 2-5, her last match win coming in early March.

And yet, when each of these two is playing her best tennis, it’s easy to imagine them both contending for many titles. Keys’ serve, an exquisitely sculpted motion, remains one of the best in the game. Ditto for her forehand. Stephens’ game revolves around superb movement, court sense and the ability to strike when required, particularly off her forehand. Recall that as recently as 2018, these two met in the semifinals of Roland Garros, Stephens winning that match before losing in the final to Simona Halep.

As close friends, Keys and Stephens are deeply familiar with one another’s personality and playing style. Perhaps that explains the up-and-down texture of their matches. The two read one another so well that in this match, it was impossible to determine who held the upper hand. Keys can be so commanding, but also prone to making errors. Aware of this, Stephens anticipates many a Keys shot and often replies with a mix of power and precision that usually takes her to victory. Today, though, Keys was the one who came up with big shots at the right time.

Next up for Keys: a first-time meeting with reigning Roland-Garros champion Iga Swiatek. It will be an interesting generational contrast. Keys is now 26, a veteran, but hardly jaded or over-tennis’d. Then there’s the 19-year-old Swiatek, tennis’ latest wunderkind, smack in the middle of the transition from hunter to hunted.

Having labored hard on the clay to beat a longstanding and clever rival, might Keys swing with far more freedom versus Swiatek?

In a Rome clash full of shifts, Madison Keys topples Sloane Stephens

In a Rome clash full of shifts, Madison Keys topples Sloane Stephens