French Open | Stephens and Keys in repeat of US Open final
Americans Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys will meet in the French Open women’s singles semi-finals on Thursday in Paris, the first all-American French Open semi since 2002, when Serena Williams beat defending champion Jennifer Capriati to win the first of her four consecutive major singles titles.
Stephens defeated Russian Daria Kasatkina, 6-3 6-1, in Tuesday’s quarter-finals, hours after Keys beat unseeded Yulia Putintseva, of Kazakhstan, 7-6(5) 6-4.
The business end of Roland-Garros is coming sharply into focus as the women’s French Open quarter-final line-up got under way in Paris.
I think even though it's still not my favourite surface, I definitely feel more comfortable on it. I feel like this year especially I have been finding the balance of being a little bit more patient but also playing my game, whereas before I feel like I would go too far one way. That's the biggest thing of just remembering how I like to play tennis but just maybe adding a couple more shots to each rally. Madison Keys
American 13th seed Madison Keys proved too strong for Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva on Tuesday as she reached the semis for the first time and awaited the result of the 10th-seeded Sloane Stephens and Daria Kasatkina, to learn of her next opponent.
Making up the last 8 are Garbiñe Murguruza (3), Stephens (10), Angelique Kerber (12) and Maria Sharapova (28), who are all Grand Slam champions, while Simona Halep (1) and Keys (13) are major finalists.
Only Kasatkina (14) and Putintseva have yet to prove themselves by going deep at a Grand Slam.
Among those last 8 is a trio of players, Kerber, Stephens and Keys, who claim clay is not their preferred surface, and yet have continued to post mighty performances in Paris, developing the essential skill of patience on the slow dirt.
All quarter-finalists, of course, have impeccable credentials and possess powerful artillery so competition was bound to be rife.
After the surprises of the previous day, it was the lower half of the draw’s turn to step into the limelight and, first up, playing on Court Suzanne Lenglen, were Putintseva and Keys.
The American, into her first Roland-Garros quarter-final, maintains that she is not the biggest fan of playing on the red dirt.
“I like it a little bit more now,” the American said with a smile after booking a last-eight test against Putintseva, insisting that building a platform of patience on clay has been an arduous process.
“That’s something that I have had to get better at in all aspects of my life, especially on the tennis court.
“I think even though it’s still not my favourite surface, I definitely feel more comfortable on it.
“I feel like this year especially I have been finding the balance of being a little bit more patient but also playing my game, whereas before I feel like I would go too far one way.
“That’s the biggest thing of just remembering how I like to play tennis but just maybe adding a couple more shots to each rally.”
Putintseva and Keys skills on the clay were to be royally tested after torrential rain overnight and much of the morning, clearing in time for the scheduled 1pm start and leaving the court heavy.
From Kazakhstan, Putintseva, the World No 98, is of Russian origin and descent, who reached a ranking 27 in February 2017 and took out Britain’s Johanna Konta at the start of her impressive run.
She had also made it to French quarter-finals before.
It was Putintseva who landed the first punch, breaking Keys in the sixth game to go up 4-3 and looking marginally the more comfortable in the cool, sluggish conditions.
An ace consolidated the break, prompting Keys to have to serve to stay in the set, which she did using her all-court game to stave off the challenge.
The American orchestrated two break points as Putinsteva served for set, and snagged the game with a winning running forehand to level proceedings.
She held for 6-5 as the Kazakh briefly wobbled, and drew out two set points, which she squandered after long rallies.
Putinsteva ran down a drop shot and, as Keys struck her response long, then managed to convert her advantage to hold firm for the tiebreak.
Both using the drop shot to great effect, Keys held the edge and pulled up two further set points, the first of which the Kazakh saved with a drop volley and then was left stranded by a winning backhand from the American to take it after 52 minutes.
They were level-pegged in the second again until the all-important 7th, when Keys struck out with a forehand winner on break point to move ahead.
She held her own serve convincingly enough, dropping only one point, for 5-3, but failed to put pressure on the Kazakh, who held her own to narrow the gap.
Serving for the match, Keys, using her heavy delivery and fearsome forehand, gained a match point when Putinsteva inexplicably netted a forehand.
On the American’s next first serve, the Kazakh failed to fully connect on her return, and the place in the semi-finals went Keys’ way, 7-6(5) 6-4, after an hour and 24 minutes.
“I really just had to focus because Yulia was playing so well, I knew I just had to make a few more balls,” said Keys, who is yet to drop a set in the tournament.
In the other quarter-final played on Tuesday, Sloane Stephens powered past Daria Kasatkina 6-4 6-2 in a comprehensive victory that secures a semi-final clash with fellow American Madison Keys.
The No 10 seed, who beat Keys in the US Open final last year while unseeded, has reached her first French Open semi-final after posting four successive fourth-round appearances in Paris from 2012 to 2015 and enjoys the unique qualities of competing on clay courts.
“I have always played well here. I really have never had a bad year here. I have lost to some really great players. I don’t think that I’m such a great clay-court player. I think I just enjoy playing on it,” Stephens explained after a 6-2 6-0 demolition of 25th seed Anett Kontaveit.
“I think it’s a cool surface. It’s different from all the other surfaces we play on all year long. I’m no Rafa [Nadal]. I just try to take it day by day and enjoy myself.”
She faced Kasatkina, the youngest of the eight women’s quarter-finalists at age 21, who has even bigger wins in her sights.
The Russian made it three straight-sets wins out of three in 2018 over Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki to earn her berth in the last eight at Roland-Garros for the first time.
Her adversary on Tuesday presented a further stern test of her remarkable talent but the Russian loves the clay and won as a junior in Paris four years ago.
A baseliner with a killer forehand, Kasatkina is unafraid to come forward, and can also throw in shrewd slice and deceiving topspin. She also has a very shrewd tennis brain in her head.
Stephens, however, took control with a commanding show of power, drilling forehands into all corners of the court and forcing Kasatkina into countless errors.
The American tallied 16 winners, while the Russian produced just 10 to 25 unforced errors.
“I knew I had to come out and keep swinging,” Stephens said.
“Sometimes I start well and sometimes a little sluggish. I knew I needed to keep swinging no matter what, even if it was very close, so that’s what I did.”
That authority was on display from the early stages of the match as Stephens broke Kasatkina, the No 14 seed, at love on her second service game, then responded to losing her own serve by breaking back immediately.
Stephens fought back from 40-0 down in that marathon game, chock-full of the lengthy, heavy rallies that defined the match, then converted her first set point in the next game when Kasatkina slammed a ball into the net.
Kasatkina never recovered from that setback, dropping each of her last three service games as Stephens adroitly knocked groundstrokes past the 21-year-old Russian.
The American punctuated her dominating display with a powerful forehand down the line on her first match point to win the final six games of the match.
“[In] the second set, she just continued to put the pressure,” Kasatkina said. “And she won. She was better than me today.”
The 25-year-old Stephens displayed remarkable control on her serve, placing 83 percent of first serves in and winning 7 of the 9 points on her second serve, while Kasatkina, meanwhile, won less than half of the points on her serve.
The victory continued a superb Roland Garros for Stephens, who has dropped just one set in five matches despite a mediocre 4-4 record in clay-court WTA events that followed her win in Miami.
The 2017 WTA Comeback Player of the Year advanced past the fourth round of the French Open for the first time and is guaranteed to surpass her career-high of No. 9 next week.
“I’m super-excited again to have my best result here, obviously, being in another semis of a slam is amazing,” Stephens said.
“Another good opportunity on Thursday, and [I’m] just really looking forward to it.”
The first thing on Stephens’ mind after beating the wily Russian to seek out friend, who she will face in an all-American semi-final.
“Now I just have to go find her, because I need to tell her some juicy stuff,” the 25-year-old said after setting up a repeat of last year’s U.S. Open final showdown.
The last time Stephens and Keys played each other was on a hardcourt in the Flushing Meadows final when Stephens ended up consoling her tearful friend after demolishing her to claim a maiden Grand Slam title.
While the stakes could not be higher on Thursday, Stephens said there will be no ‘weirdness’ in the locker room.
“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,” she said.
“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.”