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Sloane Stephens gets the best of close friend Madison Keys to start US Open

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NEW YORK — Last Thursday, in the days leading up to the U.S. Open, Sloane Stephens made plans to practice against her longtime friend, fellow American Madison Keys. They were set to hit at Arthur Ashe Stadium. At around 12:20 p.m., she saw a copy of the draw, and took a quick glance.

Stephens’ name sat alongside Keys’ name, and she thought, “Oh, they must be letting fans in to watch practice.” Then she took a closer look. Her heart sank.

“Oh no,” she thought. “That says Round 1. Oh my God.”

Practice was canceled, and a few days later on Monday, Keys and Stephens were on opposite sides of the court to start play in the U.S. Open. Flipping the switch between friend and competitor can be tricky, but it might be trickier for Keys and Stephens, who have known each other since they were 12 years old and have a relationship that runs deeper than the sport that connected them.

“There’s probably one or two people at your job that you’d actually be friends with if you stopped working there,” Stephens said. “Maddie is one of those people. She’s actually genuinely my friend.”

Madison Keys, left, embraces Sloane Stephens after Stephens prevailed in their their first round match at the U.S. Open.
Madison Keys, left, embraces Sloane Stephens after Stephens prevailed in their their first round match at the U.S. Open.

Unfortunately for Stephens and Keys (the friends), someone had to win, and it ended up being Stephens (the competitor) who prevailed 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (7). After splitting the first two sets, it was a taut third set, which featured plenty of back-and-forth. No lead was secure. With the score 5-5 and Keys serving, Stephens jumped to 0-40 lead, only to see Keys dismiss three break points and get back to deuce. Stephens settled herself and forged the break with a sliced backhand, and served for the match at 6-5. But this time, Keys had the answer, breaking back when Stephens knocked a forehand long.

In the tiebreaker, Keys seemed in control when she went up 5-3 on an overhead winner, after Stephens hit a short lob, which she described as “atrocious.” But the momentum shifted back to Stephens who ended it on her third match point.

Although this wasn’t the first time the two friends had competed against each other, Monday's match did feel different. Entering Monday, the last time Stephens and Keys had met at the U.S. Open was on that same court — Arthur Ashe — in the 2017 final. It was not much of a match. Stephens overcame extreme odds — she was unseeded at the time, and coming off of an 11-month injury layoff — to defeat Keys 6-3, 6-0, to secure her first and only Grand Slam title so far.

Much has changed since then. Keys, who was once ranked No. 7 in the world, in 2016, has now fallen to No. 42. This was her fifth straight loss. Stephens, who was once ranked No. 3 in the world, in 2018, now sits at No. 66. In 2021, they’re shooting for the same goal: a return to former dominance. Given that context, finding out that you’re facing a close friend in Round 1 doesn’t necessarily evoke excitement. Keys speculated whether some cosmic forces were at play.

“I honestly kind of felt like it was coming, so I wasn't really surprised (when I saw the draw),” she said. “For some weird reason I was kind of expecting it.”

Even though it wasn’t the outcome — or the matchup — wanted, Keys found reasons for optimism, both for herself and for Stephens. Keys applauded her friend for the way she’d balanced her defense with her offense. Keys said after the match that she was happy with how she’d dictated her own offense, and felt she was serving well.

Keys did see success in her scoring, hitting 36 winners for the match, to Stephens’ 12, and winning more points than Stephens did (102 for the match to Stephens’ 91). But Keys also made more mistakes, committing 19 unenforced errors in the third set alone, and 37 for the entire match.

It wasn’t the cleanest tennis, but it’s hard to expect that when you’re trying to climb your way back to the top, a process that both Keys and Stephens are familiar with by now.

“I thought the level was really good,” Stephens said. “We were both looking to start winning some matches and get back to where we were. It's just unfortunate we both had to play each other here because I felt like we were both on the upswing a little bit. Where we are, both of us, the only place to really go is up.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Open: Sloane Stephens beats friend Madison Keys in first match