Reem Abulleil takes a deep dive into the Sloane Stephens-Madison Keys match-up ahead of their semi-final showdown in Paris on Thursday.
It’s the first time either player has made the last-four in Paris and the two friends are looking forward to their third career showdown against one another.
This is the first all-American French Open semi-final since 2002, when Serena Williams defeated Jennifer Capriati en route to the title.
Keys made it to the semis with a straight-sets win over Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva while reigning US Open champion Stephens eased past Russia’s Daria Kasatkina.
This time last year, Stephens was still sidelined with a foot injury that her walking around in crutches and Keys was coming off a second wrist surgery. Since then, they made remarkable returns as they both feature in a second semi-final in the last three Slams.
WHAT THE PLAYERS SAID
Stephens on how she handles facing a good friend like Keys:
“It’s the same thing as always. When we get on the court, it’s time to compete. But before that, we are not going to be weird and awkward and make it, like, weird for each other. Now I just have to go find her, because I need to tell her some juicy stuff. I just went and searched for her in the training room. I think everything will be normal. And then when we get on the court, it’s time to compete. It’s go time. Until then, we’re the same girls as always.”
Stephens on whether she feels she tough to beat at the moment:
“Sure, yeah, I guess. I’m playing well, in a good space. I like clay. I mean, the court suits my game pretty well. Like I said, you have to just take your opportunities when you get them, and it’s just match by match, basically.”
Keys on how she’s finally finding her footing on clay:
“I think it was still kind of a confusion in the head up until about a week ago (smiling). Obviously, I grew up in the States where we don’t really have red clay. Even playing on clay, it was green clay, which is much faster and much different. So my first real experience on red clay, it was when I was 16 or 17. It’s been a little bit longer for me to get used to it, but I feel like every year I get more comfortable.”
Keys on how being “nice” never held her back:
“I have actually been told quite often that I’ll never win or do well because I’m too nice of a person and I just don’t have it. I think that’s a load of crap, but, you know, it’s just me (smiling). I don’t think you have to be mean in order to win matches. I think there’s a difference between being intense and wanting it and fighting and just not being nice, so that’s something that I have always stayed true to. I’m not ever going to try to be a person that isn’t nice, so that feels more authentic to me and, you know, I think I’m still doing okay. Well, trying to be as nice as possible.”
Keys on her upcoming semi-final against Stephens:
“I’m going to have to be the one to try to open up the court and go for my shots. I obviously lost to Sloane at the US Open, but, you know, I feel like on clay it’s a little bit of a different match-up.”
CAN MADISON FIND THE KEY AGAINST SLOANE?
Keys is 0-4 in sets against Stephens in previous meetings, with the latter claiming wins over her friend on the hard courts of Miami in 2015 and US Open in 2017.
The American pair have contrasting styles, with Stephens’ game based on her athleticism and ability to get many balls back, while also turning defence into offence fairly quickly. Keys is all-out attack. She is less comfortable on the clay compared to Stephens and can get rattled when opponents make her run too much.
Keys will have to be patient in this semi-final, and only pull the trigger when she’s ready to finish off the point.
AMERICANS CAN CLAY
Many Americans struggle on the red dirt because of the lack of red clay courts in the United States but several players have managed to master the surface nonetheless. Serena Williams is a three-time French Open champion, Jennifer Capriati won in 2001, and the legendary Chris Evert retired with a 94.5% winning record on clay, triumphing seven times at Roland Garros.
It looks like the younger generation of Americans are also getting comfortable sliding and grinding on the dirt. Stephens has made the second week in Paris in five of her seven appearances and Keys is slowly coming to terms with the surface.
KEYS’ MAJOR FORM
Keys has reached the quarter-finals in her last three consecutive Grand Slams as the 23-year-old continues to make strides ahead at the highest level. She has now made the semis at three of the four majors with Wimbledon being the only Slam where she hasn’t featured in the final-four yet.
Keys has reached the second week in nine of her last 11 Slams.
She is one of two semi-finalists — alongside Garbine Muguruza — who are yet to drop a set this fortnight in Paris.
SPRING OF SLOANE
Just like she wowed the tennis world with her summer last year, Stephens is enjoying a strong spring that started with her winning the title in Miami. She made the last-16 in Madrid and Rome and now has a chance to make the French Open final.
A win on Thursday would move Stephens to No. 4 in the rankings. The last American to hold a top-five ranking other than Venus or Serena Williams was Lindsay Davenport in April 2006.
Following this tournament, Stephens will become the 44th woman in WTA history to cross the $10 million career prize money threshold.