“American tennis, here we are,” Sloane Stephens said last September. It was the night of the women’s semifinals at the U.S. Open. All four remaining players were from the United States, and none of them were named Serena Williams. That night, Stephens beat Venus Williams, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5. Two days later, she defeated one of her closest friends, Madison Keys, 6-3, 6-0, in the championship match. In the absence of Serena, who had recently given birth to her first child, the Stephens-Keys final was an exciting sign for the future of domestic tennis. And this past week at the French Open, the two Americans have demonstrated that their fortnight in Queens was no fluke.
On Tuesday afternoon at Roland Garros, the powerful and patient Stephens needed just over an hour to defeat Daria Kasatkina, a 21-year-old from Russia whose inventive tactics have made her one of the game’s most promising young players. With the win, Stephens advances to the semifinal, where she will play Keys, who earlier in the day cruised to a 7-6 (5), 6-4 win over Yulia Putintseva. Either Stephens or Keys will be the first American who isn’t Serena to play in the French Open final since 2002. (Venus made the title match that year, where she lost to … Serena. In 2001, Jennifer Capriati won the tournament.) “I’m super excited every time I get to play Madi,” Stephens said after her match. “It’s great. She’s my best friend on tour. For American tennis, it’s incredible.”
At this time last year, Keys, returning from wrist surgery, lost in the second round of the French Open. Stephens was still recovering from foot surgery and didn’t play; as recently as nine months ago, she was ranked no. 957 in the world. Even after winning the U.S. Open, Stephens struggled to maintain her championship form; she didn’t win another match that season. But after a first-round exit at the Australian Open, she’s been gaining momentum at just the right time, winning the Miami Open in March and dropping only one set at Roland Garros thus far. She will now face Keys—“really the only person I actually watch,” Stephens said.
Stephens’s match against Kasatkina had the potential to be a showcase of two intriguing tennis talents; a showdown between Stephens’s cool groundstrokes and Kasatkina’s maddening drop shots. And at times, it was. The two women engaged in long, pleasing rallies that were like trigonometry and calculus lessons in one. With both of them wearing similar items from the latest Nike line, there were times when they resembled an ocean-blue Spider-Man-pointing-at-Spider-Man meme.
In the round of 16, Kasatkina upset no. 2 seed Caroline Wozniacki in a 7-6, 6-3 match that was played over two days due to weather. Then she charmed reporters with the self-deprecating admission that, on the same day she was advancing to her first career quarterfinal in a Grand Slam, she also had to pick up and pack out of her Airbnb rental in Paris. “You have to pay in advance,” she said of the too-short booking, “and you never know.”
Daria Kasatkina said she won’t be watching Serena-Maria because her AirBnB ended today and she has to move to the hotel. Asked if she didn’t think she’d be here past Monday, sheepishly, “You have to pay in advance and you never know.” #RG18— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) June 4, 2018
But while Kasatkina was navigating the logistics of online hospitality, Stephens was reminding everyone that the reigning U.S. Open champion had logged on.
On Tuesday, in the eighth game of her quarterfinal match against Kasatkina, she summoned the sort of stubborn micro-resilience that makes competitors into contenders. After falling behind early in the match, Kasatkina had the ball in her hand, a 40-0 lead, and the opportunity to even the first set at 4-4. “I was like, don’t give up, you’re still in the game,” Stephens recalled afterward. In an exchange that included eight deuces and lasted nearly 10 minutes, Stephens saved six game points, broke Kasatkina’s serve, and did not look back, winning the first set 6-3. Kasatkina opened the second set by taking a 1-0 lead, but it was the last game she’d win.
On Friday, before Serena Williams withdrew from the French Open with a pectoral injury, Kasatkina’s coach, Philippe Dehaes, watched her play doubles and explained to The New York Times how frustrating it could be to see Williams succeed. He said this not to be rude or disparaging, but out of straight-up awe; Williams, he said, had a way of “refusing to lose as if losing were an illness” that differentiated her from the young women he saw on the tour.
“I am happy to see her win of course because I have a lot of respect for her,” Dehaes said, “but I’m angry when I think of the others. I say, ‘Wake up, girls. Serena is nearly 37 years old. What does it take for you to wake up?’” Once again, though, just like at last year’s U.S. Open, Williams’s absence is enabling the next generation of players to respond to such a challenge, to make it so no one can sleep on them anymore.