QUEENS, N.Y.—It was after 10 p.m. in interview room one, in the basement of Arthur Ashe stadium, and Sloane Stephens was dutifully answering questions about her three-set U.S. Open semifinal win over Venus Williams. The press conference would go longer than usual, a PR guy said, because there would be no pre-final presser. A few reporters, probably thinking about editors and deadlines, sighed.
Madison Keys hadn’t even won her semifinal against CoCo Vandeweghe at that point, but with a healthy lead and no sign of nerves, the narrative arcs were solidifying. They’d been there all along, these potential storylines, jotted in reporters notebooks or saved in Twitter drafts, but now it was happening: The all-American, made-for-TV, historic-three-times-over final between comeback players who are also close friends. Stephens was ready for it, and the questions.
On having a first-time major champion, she said:
“I’m super happy to be in a Grand Slam final. To do it here, obviously, my home slam, is obviously more special. I think this is what every player dreams about.”
On an having an American winner, Stephens took stock of U.S. tennis, before joking that after this she never wants to “discuss the state of American tennis” again:
“Having four Americans in the semifinals, I think that says a lot about American tennis and where we are right now.”
When asked about the final featuring two black women, 60 years after pioneering black athlete Althea Gibson won the tournament, Stephens said:
“I don’t think there is any other word to describe it than ‘amazing’ for me and Maddie. Obviously, Venus, we are following in her footsteps. She’s been here. She’s represented the game so well as an African-American woman. Maddie and I are here to join her and represent just as well as Venus has in the past and honored to be here.”
Both players are coming back from injuries with newfound resolve.
“[I realized] that I’m a real fighter, that I have a lot of grit. ... If you work really hard, if you fight your way through and fight your way back, you can make some things happen for yourself.”
And of course, one of the most popular storylines: A face-off between friends.
“I have known her for a long time. She’s probably one of my closest friends on tour. Love her to death. ... It’s obviously going to be tough. It’s not easy playing a friend.”
The last narrative is about their different playing styles, which were perfectly encapsulated by their semifinal matches. Stephens used her defensive chops to beat Williams in a three-set rollercoaster of a match 6-1, 0-6, 7-5, while Keys played her brand of aggressive first-strike tennis to handily demolish Vandeweghe 6-1, 6-2.
But Stephens isn’t a traditional counter-puncher, absorbing other players’ power and waiting for her opponent to mess up. She builds points, shot by shot, opening up the court, and biding her time until the perfect moment to strike. And Keys isn’t reckless—she had 25 winners and only nine unforced in her semifinal match, a rare stat for someone who goes for so much on her shots.
So there are two power hitters, one who can get to seemingly any ball and waits for her chance, and one who takes her opponents’ chances away when she zips her forehand fast and early. How will that play out out on the court? That’s the most difficult question, and one Stephens didn’t seem inclined to answer.
Asked to compare her play to Keys’s, Stephens cited her opponent’s aggressive style, and said, “I don’t do that. I use my wheels more and make sure I get a lot of balls back and make the other person play.”
But it was getting late, and Stephens’s blinks during the reporters’ queries were getting longer.
“That’s really it. I’m not in the league of breaking down game styles. Sorry.”