It’s been a strange year for women’s tennis, to say the least.
Starting off under the usual auspices of Serena Williams’ dominance, but her subsequent pregnancy through things into chaos, which persisted all the way through to the end of Wimbledon. It was only with the ascendancy of Karolina Pliskova and Garbine Muguruza that things began to settle, and by the time the US Open rolled around, the assumption was there would be at least one, if not two, familiar faces on championship Saturday. Instead, we got the unlikeliest pairing of them all.
In Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, the 2017 women’s final features two of the games long heralded, yet never quite realised talents. The sort of players whom you knew could go far at a major, but never really expected to. Whether it was due to health, inexperience or plain old consistency, something was always in their way – now, the only thing potentially stopping them is each other.
As such, this is a fitting conclusion to a tournament – and indeed a year on the women’s tour – with such remarkable, yet improbable outcomes. Who will win? Read on to find out.
Besides the obvious contest for the “next great American tennis star”, Keys’ and Stephens’ storylines have much more in common than they don’t. For both, a win would represent a remarkable turnaround from recent injury woes – Stephens’ season only having started at Wimbledon after a stress fracture in her right foot, Keys having missed the Australian Open due to surgery on her left wrist, with another following the French – although what they’ve already done certainly shouldn’t be discounted. On a more grounded level, it ensconces either woman within the top 20 (within reach of the top 8) and gives them the springboard necessary to make a run to the top of the rankings – something they’re both clearly capable of.
Both Keys and Stephens have collected their fair share of notable scalps this tournament, but their lead-in matches could hardly have been more different. Rolling 6-1, 6-2 over CoCo Vandeweghe in the semifinals, Keys played near-perfect tennis, reducing one of the tour’s biggest hitters to a frustrated mess. Conversely, Stephens’ semi was the perfect example of a rollercoaster ride, taking the first set against Venus Williams 6-1, only to be bageled in the second, and squeaking by in the third with a late surge to win 7-5. That said, Williams is widely-regarded as a superior opponent to Vandeweghe, so it’s not completely in Keys’ favour, although you’d give her the edge on sheer dominance.
Despite having come up in close succession on the tour, Stephens and Keys have only played once before – a 6-4, 6-2 win for the former in Miami 2015. This time around it’s unlikely to be as easy for either party. Together they make for an interesting contrast in styles – Stephens the more defensive oriented, relying on her movement to wear down opponents and create opportunities, Keys more likely to hit through the court and pounce on so much as a half-opening. As such, Keys will dictate most rallies, and it will be Stephens’ job to find ways to keep her off-balance, varying the direction, mixing in the occasional slice, anything to stop her opponent from painting the lines.
If Keys plays as hot as she did against Vandeweghe, there will be stretches where she’s simply unplayable, but as we saw against Venus, Stephens knows how to whether the storm, and isn’t afraid to use her opponent’s pace against her, especially on the backhand side. More than anything, Stephens needs to make Keys work for her shots, ensuring that whatever the winner count, the error tally is matched in kind – that, more than anything, will determine this match, but especially right now, it’s easier said than done .
Keys in three. As good as Stephens was in wearing down another heavy hitter in Venus Williams, Keys has been on another level. Nevertheless, expect this to be a slog, as it would be a great shock if Stephens’ persistence doesn’t pay off to some degree, but Keys has shown this summer she’s entirely capable of digging in should things get more protracted, and that, combined with her shotmaking superiority, makes her the favourite to take out the 2017 US Open women’s title.