Throughout the history of women’s tennis, there have always been leaders of the game from America. The rivalry of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova saw them each win 18 Grand Slam titles and played each other 80 times. Billie Jean King broke gender barriers with the “Battle of the Sexes.” The Williams sisters dominated the sport like no pair has before, winning 121 WTA titles between them, 30 of those being Grand Slam tournaments.
With Venus well past her prime and Serena attempting to return to the game after having her first child, there was a worry that tennis players from America would be lacking in quality and success.
Enter Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys. They head a new pack of female American tennis players, ready to show the world that the WTA and America can move past Serena and Venus.
Stephens Rises and Tumbles
Tennis fans for many years have been enamored by Sloane Stephens ever since her early days as a junior. Born in Plantation, Florida, she started playing tennis at the age of nine, eventually training at the Chris Evert Academy in Boca Raton.
After showing tremendous success as a junior, Stephens decided to turn pro. As a teenage professional, she immediately demonstrated great success, reaching the 4th round of the French Open, 3rd round of Wimbledon, and the 3rd round of the US Open. With great defense and solid groundstrokes, pundits agreed that the young American was ready to make the big leap to being a consistent contender at majors.
At the 2013 Australian Open, she underwent a remarkable run to her first Grand Slam semifinal, defeating experienced players like Simona Halep, Kristina Mladenovic, Laura Robson, and Bojana Jovanovski. She would end up losing in straight sets to her American counterpart, Serena Williams. As a result of the Australian Open success, Stephens broke into the top 20 as a teenager.
The difficult reality of many young rising stars is that maintaining consistency is a hard feat to achieve. Stephens experienced this all too well. Her form and results declined as she often bowed out early in tournaments.
Then, the injury bug hit Stephens. She had to miss 11 months from the 2016 US Open due to a foot injury, which required surgery. Many thought Stephens was another teenager to falter in the limelight. Oh, did she prove them wrong!
The Keys to Stardom
Like Stephens, rising star Madison Keys also had high expectations to take women’s tennis by storm. Another disciple of the Evert Academy in Boca Raton, Keys’ aggressive style of play at such a young age wowed coaches.
At age 14, she turned pro. At age 17, she would be inside the top 100. And just before her 20th birthday, she would become a top 10 player in the world. She was the first American to be in the top 10 of the WTA Rankings since Serena Williams accomplished the feat in 1999.
But getting to the Top 10 did not come without its share of obstacles. Always training and being surrounded by other players who want to make it big as a professional, Keys experienced the pressures that many young athletes face.
“It was constant, being compared to other girls,” Keys stated. “It still does happen; we still have a number next to our name. You have to dissociate from that. From a very young age, you had to not care what other people were saying.”
Keys credits her coach, former world number one Lindsay Davenport, for keeping her grounded and giving her the confidence that she can compete with the best in the world.
“Going with Lindsay, she really made me say, ‘O.K., what do you want?’ And I’d sit there and say, ‘What do you want me to say that I want?’” said Keys. “It was always more difficult for me to just stand my ground and say, ‘This is what I want to do.’ Now, if I’m the one who makes the decision, and it blows up in my face? O.K., that was my decision, I’m O.K. with that; let’s move on.”
Stephens and Keys Ready To Be Leaders of American Tennis
After the French Open, Stephens and Keys are both ranked in the Top 10. While the two young stars are very good friends, they have had to face each other in significant matches.
The pinnacle of both their careers thus far came last September when they both were in the US Open Final. While it was their first final appearance for both ladies, Stephens appeared to be the more experienced of the two, defeating Keys in straight sets 6-3, 6-0 to win her first Grand Slam title.
“There are no words to describe how I got here because if you told someone this story they’d be, like, ‘that’s insane,’” said Stephens.
The two met again recently at the French Open, this time in the semifinals. It was clear Stephens was taking the next step in her development, playing aggressively to win 6-4, 6-4. In the match, Stephens only had 11 unforced errors to Keys’s 41 and was using the full width of the court to make her opponent feel uncomfortable.
“It’s not easy. It’s never easy playing someone from your country, let alone someone you actually, like, care about and you’re friends with,” stated Stephens.
Keys and Stephens’ friendship makes them probably the friendliest of rivals in women’s tennis. Even growing up playing at the same Academy, when comparisons are made without a hitch, the two still remained close.
“We’ve definitely had to balance it out, and not focus on being jealous, and not make our ambition turn into jealousy,” said Keys. We’ve both done a really good job at continuing to stay friends no matter who is doing what, who is ranked where, or anything else.”
With the grass and hard court seasons fast approaching, expect these two Americans to be right there in the mix for winning championships. While we will always admire and be in awe of the impact Serena and Venus made on the game, moving on to a new generation of talent is important.
If Stephens and Keys can provide that constant source of rivalry and inspiration for other young players, then it is safe to say that American tennis is in great hands with these two at the helm.
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