Saturday, September 9, 2017

Sloane throws a party in the USA

So I toss the ball up
They're playin' my song, the butterflies fly away
I'm hittin' my serve like "yeah"
I'm crushin' returns like "yeah"
I got my score up, they're playin' my song
I know I'm gonna be okay
 It's a party in the USA!
Today's final began with all the promise that was heralded when the draw came down to two rising stars from the United States--Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys. Both players made it to the final after undergoing serious injury rehab. Stephens was out for almost a year following foot surgery, and Keys had to have two wrist surgeries (and then injured her shoulder). 

Both players held easily to start the match, but Stephens grabbed the first break to go up 4-2. From the start, it was clear that Stephens understood that it wasn't wise to try to outhit Keys, but that she could flummox her by changing the ball pace and direction. She also did it without making any unforced errors. At 3-5, Stephens held a set point, but was unable to convert it. On her second set point on Keys' serve, Stephens was victorious when Keys hit a return long.

Stephens held for the first game of the second set, then broke Keys with a passing forehand. An immediate break from the player who won the first set is a psychological weapon of considerable power, and Stephens' aim was true as she held for 3-0, then broke again when Keys double-faulted in the next game. Stephens remained fluid and graceful, as though she played in these kinds of matches every day, when--in fact--it was her first major final appearance.

Stephens then went down 0-40 (the first break points she had provided Keys) on her next serve, but skillfully got herself out of trouble. Within moments, it was 5-0 and Stephens had a championship point. She wasn't able to convert it, and she also wasn't able to convert the next one, which Keys saved in the only dramatic rally of the match, up to that point.

Keys held a break point, but couldn't convert that. The two went after each other with some extremely wide angles, and Stephens wound up with a third championship point. This time, she was the recipient of a Keys ball that went into the net, and it was over, 6-3, 6-0. Then, after what may have been the longest hug in the history of net hugs, Stephens broke into a tearful grin and greeted an admiring crowd. 

Stephens began the year ranked barely in the top thousand, and she was ranked number 83 when she entered the U.S. Open. Keys was somewhat of a favorite to win, but in this match, she never really found an opportunity to display her admirable skills. Maybe her leg bothered her, maybe the occasion got to her, maybe she was just flat. Stephens easy accuracy and strategic acumen definitely bothered Keys. Stephens hit ten winners and made only six unforced errors.

It was a very emotional ceremony, party because the two women are such close friends; Stepehens even said that she wished it could have been a draw. It's probably just a matter of time, though, before Keys catches up with her friend.

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