For a long time, fears of a drought in American tennis persisted. The men’s side had been recuperating slowly, buoyed by the success of a few collegiate players. Yet there was still no clear successor to two of the biggest tennis stars of the past 20 years, Venus and Serena Williams. The two pioneering athletes have changed the sport of tennis forever. That tandem — along with its various rivals in multiple stages of a fruitful era of WTA competition — made tennis become a high-stakes, fashionable, and relevant pop-culture experience for the entire world to enjoy. Alas, their reign cannot last forever, even though they show no signs of stopping in what is now the twentieth year of their respective careers.
The new tandem that hopes to follow in their footsteps: Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, two women who approach the sport in ways that are like night and day, but whose career achievements have often mirrored each other. Both reached their first semifinal at Roland Garros on Tuesday. Both have reached the quarterfinal round or better at all four majors. Both were finalists at the 2017 U.S. Open, where Stephens defeated Keys to win her first major title. Jonathan Kelley reports that even their match records at majors is uncannily similar. Keys is 53-22 at majors while Sloane is 53-23.
These women are honest supporters of each other. Keys told Sloane that she was nervous watching Sloane battle to win 8-6 in the third against Italy’s Camila Giorgi in the third round of the French Open.
“During treatment yesterday I had Sloane on and was living and dying on every point in the end,” Keys said. “I saw her in the locker room, and I was like, ‘God you made me nervous at the end.’ Stephens was like, ‘You were nervous?’ I always want to see Sloane do well. I’d love for both of us to be able to be in the position to play each other multiple times. I’d love to be able to get a win.”
Stephens returned the love in the press room for Keys by saying that whenever they play they have “no boundaries” in the locker room. She couldn’t wait to get back into the locker room to tell Keys some juicy gossip.
The joy of seeing the other’s success reminds me of the original tandem coached by Richard Williams. The 2002 Roland Garros final — in which Venus became a photographer for Serena’s trophy pictures — could easily be swapped with Keys and Stephens sharing a laugh on the same side of the court after the U.S. Open final. Serena Williams, the younger woman from Compton, has always said that she wouldn’t be where she is today without big sister Venus.
“There’s no way I would be at 23 without her,” Serena said after her last major title. “There’s no way I would be at one without her. There’s no way I would be anything without her.”
When I try to imagine a tennis world where there is only a single Williams, the expectations — while traveling from country to country and the living the guarded lifestyle of an elite tennis player — seem overwhelming. The importance of having a close-knit relationship in that arena becomes special and powerful.
Keys and Stephens are preparing to write their next chapter. Tennis fans should be very glad to see they have each other to share this moment, “Sisters” in arms once again.
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