Monday, July 4, 2022

Sloane Stephens Sets Up Serena Clash; Madison Keys Emerging as Threat

Madison Keys
Madison Keys

*Now that all the fanfare has died down surrounding Serena Williams’ return to Indian Wells, the tournament must go on.

Outside of Williams, America has been hard pressed to produce top performers in either the WTA or the ATP fields unlike the days of old when the U.S. used to dominate in both. There have been hopefuls aplenty over the past couple of years, but very few have been able to fulfill the dreams the USTA has for them. One who is consistently climbing the ranks – on the WTA side – and has the best chance at torch bearing once Serena – who stands alone in success at representing the country – and her sister retire is Madison Keys. She has the weapons to do it and is currently the third highest ranked American woman behind the sisters.

Keys, an Illinois native, turned pro back in 2009, and has – quietly at first but now with some media attention – made a steady climb up the WTA rankings using her monstrous serve and thunderous ground strokes to do so. In fact, her power in both those areas recently knocked her inspiration, Venus Williams, out of the Australian Open and found Serena Williams nearly knocked off her feet in the following semifinal round – and it was those two who brought that element to women’s tennis in the first place. Keys ultimately lost the match – as most do to “SW-19,” but she officially announced her arrival as a “force” in the process.

Now residing in Boca Raton, Florida, Madison leads the pack in several emerging faces of color on the WTA. She started out with that aforementioned raw power, which won her many matches, but her decision making wasn’t always sound. But to address that issue and sharpen her game, she made one decision that was most certainly sound: she hired 3-time Slam champion Lindsay Davenport to be her “super coach.” Davenport is also American, has an even temperament and had a game very similar to Keys’ when she was on tour. Since being under Davenport’s tutelage, there has been an obvious spike in the blank year old’s ranking and results.

“Obviously, what we did in the offseason and practice and things like that helped me get to the semis … ” she said of Davenport’s contribution.

Though decidedly “up next,” Keys isn’t as fierce a competitor as her top-ranked compatriot, Williams; her equal or better power, however, well positions her to make a run at someday reaching the No. 1 spot in the rankings. And if she does make it, we would have to expect it to be on a different order than the way Serena did it anyway, because the fire that tested and proved Williams is simply not around anymore. There is no controversy of the magnitude that the Williams sisters (and their AA forerunners) experienced to generate their degree of determination – and ferocity as it relates to Serena. Thusly, Madison, more of the affable ilk, will likely get there on game alone.

Keys has reached the third round at Indian Wells and will have to take out former world No. 1 and IW champion, Jelena Jankovic, to advance beyond that point. She’s beaten the Serbian once and with the increased confidence and momentum from her Australian Open performance, she stands a good chance of taking her out again.

Donald Young, another American of color, was once on the path to pro level greatness, but he never found his rhythm as a consistent challenger after dominating in the juniors. He’s had some big wins, including over Andy Murray, but the huge gaps in between such wins have found the American frustrated and ranked lower than his potential would’ve indicated (current No. 47 with 38 being his highest). But at Indian Wells, which ironically is where he beat The Scott some years ago, he seems to string wins over higher ranked opponents together. On Sunday, he solidly took out No. 31, Jeremy Chardy, in the 2nd round, setting up a clash with top-ranked Spaniard Rafael Nadal.

“It’s a big win for me,” he said. “I like it. The weather is great. The way the ball flies through the air and comes off the court. Topspin, it takes well on this court and makes my serve a little normal. All those things combined … Puts you in a good atmosphere.”

When asked about facing Nadal he said:

“If I play Rafa, I’m not going to be the guy favored to win so I can swing free. I don’t have any points to defend, so it’s just free swinging from here out for me.”

Taylor Townsend, also an American (from Chicago) to watch, has some justified buzz behind her, but she has a ways to go. She had a big first round win over fellow American, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, but met with former U.S. open champion and veteran, Samantha Stosur, in round 2 and went down in flames. She deserves a bookmark in her story, however, because as a once dominant juniors player herself, her momentum is in the positive direction and she has weaponry to build upon. Townsend is also being trained by a super coach, Zina Garrison, a former U.S. Fed Cup coach and Wimbledon finalist.

sloane stephens
Sloane Stephens

Next up is Sloane Stephens,  who’s been more of a cautionary tale on the WTA after knocking Serena Willams out of the 2013 Australian Open. She experienced too much too fast, in the way of results and media attention, and allowed it to torpedo her game and drive. Since then, she’s been struggling to maintain her ranking, with only flashes of the “next big thing in U.S. Tennis” play that took her deep into every major that season.

But there’s something about that California desert air that turns the tides for USTA players.

As it was with the usually struggling Donald Young (and American Jack Sock who took out Croat Ivo Karlovic), Stephens found her footing in the desert and upended veteran and 2-time Slam champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, 7-6, 1-6, 6-4. She had already sent Chanelle Scheepers and Angelique Kerber home. It took three up and down sets to achieve the defeat Kuznetsova, but as the match wore on, Sloane’s confidence grew. She started out constantly seeking approval from her box (coach Nick Saviano and mom Stephens), but by the final point, she was full throttle on her own with her speed, agility and that booming forehand she was known for.

The win booked her a spot in the round of 16 against tournament darling and world No. 1, Serena Williams, who beat Zarina Diyas earlier in the day, 6-2, 6-0.

Regardless of Sloane’s sketchy results for the season, it’s one of those match ups that tennis fans and prognosticators salivate for. Serena tends to bring out the best in those with the weapons to hang with her but not the guile:

“Everyone brings their “A” game when they play me,” Serena said when she lost early at Wimbledon in 2014.

And no less should be expected of Sloane. Besides, she has beaten an injured Serena before. And further, with it not being a Slam and with Serena having no points to defend at IW, the 19-time Slam champion may not fully engage. OR, known to have a very long memory of defeats, there being so relative few, Serena may come out as the ferocious fighter with her notorious “chip” on her shoulder and take Stephens to the woodshed. Whichever case, this will be one of the matches to watch.

“I mean, it’s always an honor to play the No. 1 player in the world,” Sloane said of the pending match. “Obviously someone of her stature who has won so many titles and the great player she is, I just have to go out there and play my game and do all I can and just compete.”

2013 Australian Open Highlights:

There will be no love lost between the former “friends.”

“She’s a competitor; she’s the No. 1 player in the world. She’s what — what do you call it? She’s a — you know when you work with someone? [a colleague],” Sloane said.

It’s hot in the desert, but that and these forthcoming match ups will make it even hotter:

Madison Keys and Jelena Jankovic (3rd round)
Donald Young and Raphael Nadal ( 3rd round)
Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka (3rd round)
John Isner and Kevin Anderson (3rd round)
Bernard Tomic and David Ferrer (3rd round)
Andy Murray and Phillip Kohlschreiber (3rd round)
Steve Johnson and Tomas Berdych (3rd round)
Roger Federer and Andreas Seppi (3rd round)

Check your local listings.

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