After Sloane Stephens comfortably beat Madison Keys 6-4, 6-4 to reach the French Open final, I asked her coach Kamau Murray if he knew where Sloane was during the French Open final a year ago. “Yes, I do,” he replied. “Last year [she was] in Chicago indoors on the hard courts getting ready for grass. She was playing tennis next to a bunch of five- and six-year-old kids.”
In the understatement of the tourney, he added, “To be here from there is rewarding, because those times were not easy. You are stuck with me, indoors in my city and I’m driving you and you can’t leave until I let you. She’s relieved to be here now…We want to forget about those days [when Sloane was recuperating for eleven months] when we were trapped together, sitting in a chair, tossing balls…listening to me yap.”
Writer Christopher Clarey then mused, “She seems so calm out there…She looks in a really good place. She rarely seems rushed either. What do you see?” “Yeah,” Kamau quipped, “Same thing. Out of clarity comes calm. She knows what she should be doing and is clear on who she is as a player and clear who she’s playing.”
In today’s French Open semi, Sloane’s foe was her friend Madison Keys. It’s clear that the fabulous 23-year-old talent has been on quite a journey. When the gifted and personable Keys first broke into pro tennis, everyone noted her power. Here was a champion of the future.
Conventional wisdom shouted that Madison had to learn how to craft points. Then she learned to craft points. But she still didn’t win tournaments. Then she won a bunch of them – Eastbourne, Birmingham, Stanford. But she still didn’t reach a Slam final. Then she got to last year’s US Open final, but came out flat and sadly faltered against Stephens. She couldn’t deal with the moment.
Here at the French Open, Keys’ power strokes, like those of so many other Americans, encounter the heavy clay of Paris. Still, a few years ago, it was noted that her dazzling groundies were faster than anyone else’s at Roland Garros – male or female.
Madison had clay issues, but she hardly gave up. Rather, she got more and more comfortable on her off-surface. The singular Lindsay Davenport, with all her experience, became her coach – which particularly helped her at Slams. She got some good clay results in 2016, reaching the fourth round of the French Open and the final in Rome, where she lost to Serena.
Here in Paris, few had picked her to reach the semis. “Under the radar” is a vast understatement. But she sprinted to the final four with a win over Naomi Osaka – and without losing a set.
In the quarters, Keys used both her power and her underrated speed to beat a Russian with an interesting name, Yulia Putintseva. But her match-up with her pal Sloane felt like a nightmare. Cool and composed, lightning fast and so athletic, Stephens absorbs Keys’ power like a sponge – no problemo. Stephens had not only beaten Keys in both of their two prior meetings, she hadn’t dropped a set and had lost only nine games in six sets.
Often, the harder Madison hits, the worse she plays. Yet rarely does Sloane get out of her own vast comfort zone. Stephens blasted a down-the-line forehand to break Madison in the third game of the first set, then proceeded with distinctive ease to win the set 6-4. Never mind that this was a Slam semi and she might possibly win two of her last three Slams, Sloane made it seem like a Tuesday morning practice session.
In the first game of the second set, Keys netted a makeable backhand volley to give Stephens another break. Madison flung the ball to the clay in disgust. All the while, boxer Mike Tyson was ringside, taking in the one-sided bout. Unlike the Vegas-based slugger, Sloane doesn’t have a pure knock-out punch. Still, she can fire it up. She’s a considerable counterpuncher who brings to mind another cool customer – boxing champ Sugar Ray Leonard.
After winning the semi, she’ll be No. 4 in the rankings. The last American not named Williams to hold a top 5 ranking was Lindsay Davenport, twelve years ago. Sloane will also seek to become the first American to win a French Open singles crown since Serena, in 2015. Her foe, Simona Halep, will be a sentimental favorite. In dismissing Garbine Muguruza 6-1, 6-4 today, Halep retained her No. 1 ranking, and will also have her fourth opportunity to prevail in a Slam final.
The best active WTA player to never win a Slam, Halep lost in the most recent Aussie and French Open finals. Sloane’s coach referenced his pupil’s 2-5 losing record to the Romanian, and added that Halep “sort of owns the match-up at this point…For Sloane, it’s not a bad place to be, playing the best player in the world. I don’t want to say there’s no pressure, because there’s always pressure…But having played her in D.C. and having had a set point in the first set [will help her]…I think Sloane is ready for the challenge. Halep is a great player and a great fighter and Sloane, [as] you’ve all seen, is showing a new level of fight. As a tennis fan, I’m excited to see them play. As a tennis coach, [there’s] a lot of hard work.”
So, I asked Kamau, “if you had to describe Sloane in one word, what would it be?” He replied, “Tough – Chicago tough. She’s tough. I always make the joke, ‘I’ll take you to the South Side any day.’”