US Open 2017 Final Preview: Madison Keys vs Sloane Stephens

We are guaranteed a new Grand Slam champion at the 2017 US Open, and it’ll be either Madison Keys or Sloane Stephens who lifts the US Open trophy at the end of the week. Both have played inspired tennis so far, but who will it be who has the last laugh at the end of the tournament?

[15] Madison Keys (No.16)

Keys’ route to this stage

R1: d. Elise Mertens, 6-3 7-6(6)

R2: d. Tatjana Maria, 6-3 6-4

R3: d. [17] Elena Vesnina, 2-6 6-4 6-1

R4: d. [4] Elina Svitolina, 7-6(2) 1-6 6-4

QF: d. [Q] Kaia Kanepi, 6-3 6-3

SF: d. [20] CoCo Vandeweghe, 6-1 6-2

What a dreamy month has it been for Madison Keys. Before the US hard court swing, Keys held a 5-7 record to the year and a slump in the rankings seemed likely for the American as she gained loads of points in 2016 at the end of the year. However, everything changed at Wimbledon for Madison. Having went for surgery during the grass court swing, Keys came firing at the All England Club but went down to an inspired Camila Giorgi. This ignited a spark in form as she claimed her first hard court title in Stanford weeks later, blasting past Wimbledon champion and good friend Garbine Muguruza and CoCo Vandeweghe. She brought her good form to Cincinnati where she just fell short to Muguruza this time, but the best was yet to come…

Keys didn’t play her best tennis in the first three rounds of the US Open, scrapping past Elise Mertens, Tatjana Maria and Elena Vesnina, but that changed when she went up against No.4 seed Elina Svitolina. The pair played one of the best matches of the Open, with Keys’ power strokes going against Svitolina’s dogged defence. Keys played a great match and really stayed patient, setting up the points stroke by stroke. Going up against Kaia Kanepi, the American was surprisingly cool as she was going into the match knowing there would be four Americans in the semifinals.

However, she was even more cool in the semifinals against Vandeweghe! Keys literally blasted off the blocks immediately, taking a 5-0 advantage in less than 15 minutes. Vandeweghe could not hold her ground against Keys as the latter fired forehands and passing shots past her. Things got a little complicated as Keys took an off-court medical timeout for a right thigh injury leading 6-1 4-1, but Vandeweghe could not take advantage of the opening as Keys ended the match on a high with an ace down the T. I don’t think the injury is a cause for concern as her movement looked perfect and it seemed just precautionary.

Here are Keys’ stats for the semifinal match which were just… fantastic.

73% of first serves won [22/30]
76% of second serves won [13/17]
57% break points converted [57%]
5 aces
25 winners
9 unforced errors (!)
63% of points won in the match [62/98]

Sloane Stephens [No.84]

Route to this stage

R1: d. Roberta Vinci, 7-5 6-1

R2: d. [11] Dominika Cibulkova, 6-2 5-7 6-3

R3: d. Ashleigh Barty, 6-2 6-4

R4: d. [30] Julia Goerges, 6-3 3-6 6-1

QF: d. [16] Anastasija Sevastova, 6-3 3-6 7-6(4)

SF: d. [9] Venus Williams, 6-1 0-6 7-5

If Keys’ comeback was impressive, Sloane Stephens’ comeback was… equally impressive. This was her start of her comeback…

Then played her first few tournaments…

Then now this…

If you do follow the WTA tour though, you won’t think her run to the finals was that strange. After losing in her opening rounds in Wimbledon and Washington D.C. in singles, her first sign of a quick comeback was reaching the Washington doubles final with Eugenie Bouchard. This set her up to reach back-to-back semifinals at Premier 5 events in Toronto and Cincinnati, capturing wins over Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova, Ekaterina Makarova and Julia Goerges along the way.

Stephens’ amazing comeback just kept continuing. The American navigated a tough draw, having to battle past former NYC finalist Roberta Vinci, New Haven finalist Dominika Cibulkova, in-form Ashleigh Barty, Washington finalist Julia Goerges, and Anastasija Sevastova, who knocked out Maria Sharapova the previous round.

Most, including me though that Stephens’ fairy tale would end at the hands of legend Venus Williams. However Stephens quickly ran out to a 6-1 lead in the first set. Maybe too nervous at the prospect of a Slam final, Stephens lost focus and consumed a bagel as Williams recovered from a slow start. Sloane though regained her composure and together with Venus played one of the best sets of the tournaments as many of the points were being won rather than lost, and even the errors were mostly because of the players trying to maintain their depth. At 4-5 30-30 down, Stephens’ fate seemed to be decided, but she produced an amazing backhand passing shot down the line just when Venus thought she had set up a match point. This would be the turning point as Williams would only go on to win one more point. Awesome stuff from the American!

Head-to-head: Stephens won their only encounter back in 2015 in Miami, with a 6-4 6-2 scoreline.

Stats: Keys will rise up four spots to No.12 in the rankings, and to No.9 with the title. Outside the top 900 just a month ago, Stephens will now climb to No.22, and if she wins, she’ll return to the top 20 at No.17.

Stephens is 4-0 in WTA finals while Keys is 4-2.

Keys’ average ranking of opponents in this tournament is at 95 (The outlier was Kanepi as her ranking is at No.421. Removing Kanepi from the list gives her an average ranking of 25) while Stephens’ average ranking of opponents is at 25.

Since her comeback at Wimbledon, all of Stephens’ matches have been against top 50 players and she has amassed a 14-4 record. Against top 20 players her record is 6-3, with the losses coming to Simona Halep (x2) and Caroline Wozniacki.

Keys has a 12-1 record this year for the US hard court swing, with the only loss coming to Garbine Muguruza in Cincinnati (she held match points in that encounter).

It will be the first All-American Grand Slam final without a Williams sister involved since in 1990 where Martina Navratilova and Zina Garrison contested for the Wimbledon championship.

It will be the first time that an American player not named Williams won a Grand Slam since 2002 where Jennifer Capriati won the Australian Open.

With two American women in the final, it is guaranteed that an American will win the US Open for the first time not named Williams since 1998 where Keys’ coach, Lindsay Davenport won it against Martina Hingis.

Thoughts: Both Keys and Stephens are good friends and fellow Americans which make this Slam final even more intriguing. I don’t think anyone would have thought of this final a few months ago, with Keys and Stephens going for surgery this year and they only returned to tour officially at Wimbledon (Keys went for her second surgery during the grass court swing).

Although Stephens has the power to dictate play, she has been grinding down the baseline and relies on her athleticism to retrieve balls and turn offence into defence. This was evident in her semifinal match against Williams where she retrieved tons of shots and produced epic passing shots and lobs. Stephens will need to play more aggressively against Keys if she is to stop Madison from controlling things on court.

Like I said in my preview of Svitolina-Keys, Keys struggles against counter-punchers but the American showed lots of patience in her 7-6(2) 1-6 6-4 win over Svitolina. Keys will need to do this against Stephens too – set up loads of points with her first serve and huge ground-strokes but stay patient as Stephens is one of the fastest around the court and play with more margin. She should also try to attack the Stephens backhand and go for the backhand down the line when she needs to as Stephens will constantly go to her forehand and try to dictate with her cross-court forehand.

It is going to be very difficult to decide this one. Both are newbies at this stage of a Slam and will definitely feel the pressure. Conditions may suit Stephens a little better as the final is going to be in the day session but Keys has played all her matches at the Open in the night. I feel that Keys is more superior in her strokes and she can rely on her first serve a lot, which was what she did against Vandeweghe. If Keys can continue to stay patient during rallies and go for more margin, I can see her claiming her first Grand Slam…

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