For all the handwringing about the plight of American men’s tennis, there’s comparatively little discussion of the direction of the women’s game, where the state of affairs is far more encouraging.
Serena Williams’s successful return to Grand Slam play after childbirth, reaching the fourth round at Roland Garros before bowing out with an injury, is cause for optimism entering grass-court season, but even more heartening is the increasingly bright future of American women’s tennis, exemplified by Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys. Williams sisters they are not, but Stephens and Keys—finalists at last year’s U.S. Open, where Stephens won her maiden Grand Slam title—will meet for the second time in three majors on Thursday in semifinals of the French Open. The two friends have elevated their games the last nine months, ushering in a new era of American competitiveness at the biggest events.
While Serena grabbed the spotlight, Stephens and Keys quietly marched toward the tournament’s final weekend, showing exceptional form reminiscent of last September. Keys, the No. 13 seed, hasn’t dropped a set, while Stephens showed her tenacity in a 4–6, 6–1, 8–6 comeback victory over Camila Giorgi in the third round. In her two subsequent victories, over Anett Kontaveit and Daria Kasatkina, Stephens has dropped just six total games, winning both matches in straight sets. For the first time since Serena beat Jennifer Capriati in the ’02 semifinals, two American women will meet in the last four.
Both players have rebounded well after struggling earlier this year. Keys, still only 23, appears to have taken the disappointment of her 3–6, 0–6 Flushing Meadows loss to Stephens in stride. She’s saved her best tennis of the year for Grand Slams, reaching the quarterfinals in Melbourne and now the semifinals in Paris. In the quarterfinal against Yulia Putintseva, Keys twice willed herself back in the first set, recovering from a 3–5 hole and rallying after an 0–2 start in the tiebreaker. If her confidence ever dipped after her flat performance in the U.S. Open final, it hasn’t affected her performance in majors, where she’s shown excellent form, particularly the last 10 days. “Keep on playing like that, she can go all the way here,” Putintseva said of Keys.
Stephens’s sudden rise hit some speedbumps in the months after her U.S. Open triumph. After beating Keys, she bizarrely failed to win a match until late February in Acapulco. Stunningly, one month later, Stephens flipped the narrative again, beating Garbine Muguruza, Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka and Jelena Ostapenko in consecutive matches to win the Miami Open and crack the world top 10 for the first time. That Stephens, 25, is on the cusp of another major title is a real achievement, especially considering the quality and depth of the WTA.
There’s also Coco Vandweghe, who lost in the second round in Paris but deserves mention in any conversation about this new wave of American women. Still just 26 years old, she’s ranked No. 15 in the world.
At stake in Friday’s semifinal, besides a spot in the final, is the honor of top-ranked American: the winner is guaranteed to surpass Venus Williams, who currently sits at No. 9. Whatever the result of Thursday’s match, Stephens and Keys have shown the 2017 U.S. Open wasn’t a fluke. When the Williams sisters ultimately pass on the torch as the faces of tennis in this country, these two young Americans are proving to be worthy recipients.