Any other time, any other matchup, and the idea of a player ranked No. 57 beating the reigning champion would be considered a major upset. But that’s not an accurate way to describe Sloane Stephens’ 6-4, 6-4 win over Madison Keys Wednesday evening in the second round of the Volvo Car Open. Better yet to call it a case of one player being less rusty than the other.
Coming into this match, each player had won only two matches in 2021, drastically fewer than usual by this time of year. Ranked 24th and seeded eighth in Charleston, Keys had missed the Australian Open due to testing positive for COVID-19. As for Stephens, winner here five years ago, tonight’s victory was only the second time she’d won two consecutive matches since September 2019. “Things can’t be bad forever,” said Stephens after the match.
Each of these players has an engaging playing style. Comfortable as Stephens is at keeping the ball in play, her game at its best is hardly defensive. Stephens has a remarkable ability to simultaneously absorb pace and generate firepower, particularly off the forehand. Keys’ weapons are more obvious, most notably her elegant service motion and powerful forehand.
Though Stephens had won three of their previous four matches—Keys’ win came here during her 2019 title run—little in the first six games tonight revealed any particular edge. Neither player was particularly sharp, but the topspin Stephens imparted off both sides kept her in far more rallies than Keys’ flat groundstrokes.
Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith
Three games at the end of the first set proved pivotal. With Stephens serving at 3-4, Keys went ahead love-30, eventually holding a break point at 30-40—but hit a backhand return long and soon it was 4-all. Stephens had made slight inroads on the Keys serve throughout the set, but been unable to convert. Finally, as Keys faced her seventh break point of the set, she hit a backhand long. Serving for the set at 5-4, Keys held break point, but struck a forehand long, over-hit a swing volley at deuce and on set point was beaten by a Stephens drop shot-lob sequence.
It’s an odd thing to watch professional tennis matches these days. With no fans in attendance, the player fighting to come back has no way to generate energy from crowd support. Competitive intensity must be self-generated. Imagine, for example, the cheers and sounds that would come the defending champion’s way were she down early in the second set. Instead, there was Keys, serving at 1-all, 15-all—and closing out each of the next three points with a groundstroke into the net.
Up now a set and a break, Stephens tranquilly aggregated points; hardly flashy, surely solid, occasionally enterprising (including winning seven of eight points at the net). “I’m trying to go on the upswing,” said Stephens. “I’m trying to find my game.”
Then came another plot point. Stephens served at 4-3, 30-love. Keys won the next three points, showing superb movement and aggression. But once again, a missed opportunity, Keys on break point netting a forehand. A few more Keys errors eventually led to Stephens winning the game. At 5-4, Stephens swiftly sent up 40-love, closing it out at 30 when Keys was long with a backhand.
Time in tennis moves swiftly. Less than four years ago, these two met in an all-American US Open final, Stephens earning the victory. Since then, other Americans have stepped up into the elite. The pandemic has helped no one’s progress. But even amid the rust, even amid patches of up-and-down play, it’s clear that Keys and Stephens each have plenty of skills to contend for majors. “I’m just super-focused on trying to get my game back,” said Stephens, “and just be a little bit happier on the court.”
Stephens appears to be in better spirits, partially due to her new, ultra-positive coach Darian King, who, ranked No. 299 in the ATP rankings, still competes regularly on the Challenger circuit.
"I've know Darian since I was 12," she said. "I was just, like, I need to start enjoying myself again, I need to have fun, I want someone who knows me, and I want to just bring the energy and get back to being happy on the court, and Darian helps me with that."
"It's nice to have someone that you vibe with and is able to support you and I think for me right now where I'm at in my game, and trying to get back on the upswing, it's nice to have someone super-positive and ready to go all the time," Stephens added.