The all-American women’s final is set. Two rising stars will meet in their first Major final as the unseeded Sloane Stephens and 15th seed Madison Keys face off. Interestingly, it is also the first time two African American women other than the Williams sisters have met in a Slam final. Keys is at long last living up to her potential by adding finesse to her power game. Stephens, who was ranked 934th a month ago, continues her impressive comeback. But who will walk away triumphant from the final?
Keys and Stephens have only met once, which was back in the 2015 Miami Open in the second round. Stephens won that match, winning 6-4 6-2. But both women have gone through their own transformations since then. Stephens once relied on her natural athletic ability to win matches and seemed to lack urgency. Under new coach Kamau Murray, her preparation for matches has improved, and she looks to be working harder on and off the court. She has reaped the rewards with semi-final runs in Toronto and Cincinnati and now has the chance at glory in New York. Keys has also benefited from having a new coach in her corner. Three-time Grand Slam champion Lindsay Davenport has taught Keys the value of patience. This has seen the Illinois native build points more carefully, and she has also improved the placement of her unquestionably powerful shots.
Path to the final
Keys began her 2017 US Open with straightforward wins over Belgium’s Elise Mertens and Germany’s Tatjana Maria. In the third round, however, it took Keys three sets to oust doubles specialist Elena Vesnina of Russia. She faced another three set battle in the round of 16 to beat the fourth seed Elina Svitolina, eventually coming through 7-6 1-6 6-4. In the quarter-finals, Keys faced a resurgent qualifier, Kaia Kanepi of Estonia. But Kanepi was lacklustre and Keys won comfortably 6-3 6-3. Keys faced her fellow American Coco Vandeweghe in a semi-final that looked a tight contest on paper. It proved to be anything but as Keys won 6-1 6-2.
In her opening match, Stephens faced Italy’s Roberta Vinci. Vinci famously knocked out Serena Williams in the 2015 US Open semi-finals in one of the biggest upsets in tennis history but the Italian didn’t come close to that level of performance as Stephens won through in straight sets. She next faced Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia in a tough second round match that went the distance but Stephens won the deciding set 6-3. Stephens beat Australian Ashleigh Barty comfortably in the third round. She had to go the distance against Julia Gorges in the fourth round and in the quarter-finals against Anastasija Sevastova.
Stephens then faced her hero and seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in the semi-finals. It was in many ways a lopsided, strange showdown. Venus seemed out of sorts in the first set and Stephens won it 6-1, barely breaking a sweat. But in the second set, Venus went through the gears. Stephens had no answers as Williams levelled the match without losing a game. Both players raised their levels in the third set, playing some superb tennis. At times, it looked as if they were hitting the ball as though their lives depended on it. But it was Stephens who came out on top, breaking Williams in the 11th game of the set and serving it out to seal a 6-1 0-6 7-5 win.
How do they match up?
Both Keys and Stephens are big hitters and are at their most comfortable dictating from the baseline. Though neither of the Williams sisters are in the final in New York this year, the style of tennis may make it seem like they are. Stephens is one of the best movers on the WTA Tour and she is able to turn defence into attack very effectively. Keys is less effective when defending, but is amongst the most dangerous players in the game when allowed to dictate from the baseline. Stephens will have to maintain immaculate depth throughout the match if she is to win.
One key area will likely be the serve. Both women are effective servers though Keys has the more power of the two. Both can struggle in the key moments to find big serves. Keys, in particular, due to her high ball toss can struggle for rhythm with her serve. A high first serve percentage is essential for both women, and it is quite possible that the match will be decided by who has the better serving day. Keys hit five aces and won 73 percent of her first-service points in her semi-final. Her second serve was the most impressive it has been throughout the tournament. If she can bring that sort of serving into the final she will be hard to stop.
The women’s title match promises to be a tight battle with the 24-year-old Stephens and the 22-year-old Keys at similar stages of their careers. However, if Keys performs as clinically as she did in the semi-finals then it’s hard to see how Stephens can beat her. Whilst Stephens’ defensive skills are bettered by few, and proved key in her victory over Williams, Keys’ power should be just enough to see her across the line. Keys in three sets.
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