For 20 years Venus and Serena Williams have set the parameters and been the reigning queens of American tennis. It was back in 1997 that Venus won her first Grand Slam and Serena reached her first final. Over that time, Serena has established herself as the finest woman player in the history of the sport, while Venus has also shined as a champion and even more importantly as a fighter for pay equity for women players.
But over the last couple of weeks, the future of American tennis, at least on the women’s side, has arrived. While Serena was out of this tournament having her first child, a daughter, Venus was surprising most observers once again by nearly making her third Grand Slam final of the season at 37. However she was unable to survive a semifinal match against one of the women who have long idolized her, Sloane Stephens. When Stephens defeated her in an epic three-set match, it was hard not to view it as the torch being passed, even though neither Venus nor Serena is ready yet for retirement.
However this Open did signal that their heirs are now ready to contend for titles. Besides Stephens, her opponent was Madison Keys, another player who has long cited the Williams’ sisters as mentors and examples. The two women are great friends, but on last Saturday there were opponents, and Stephens prevailed 6-3,-6-0. Her victory capped a storybook year that included a return to competitive tennis after a long layoff. At one point in the season she ranked an astronomical 965 in the world. But after Saturday, she became the first American woman other than either Serena or Venus Williams to win a Grand Slam since the late ‘90s.
“I obviously knew I always wanted to be here,” Stephens told USA Today after her victory. “I always wanted to win a Grand Slam. I think that’s everyone’s goal, everyone’s dream. Did I know it would be like this after not playing tennis for however many months, being off for 11 months? I didn’t think it would be now.”
She was also a very gracious winner, and didn’t try to rub in her triumph at Keys expense. The two shared a long hug and words at the net, as it was apparent Stephens was trying to console her friend.
Keys despair didn’t last long. Just a few minutes later she had regained her composure and they waited together courtside, chatting and laughing, ahead of the award ceremony. Later, Keys said she was looking forward to helping Stephens celebrate her victory, saying with a laugh, “Of course, I would 1000 percent go (to a victory party). She can buy me drinks, all of my drinks.”
“Sloane is truly one of my favorite people,” Keys added. “To get to play her here is really special. Obviously, I didn’t play my best tennis today. She was supportive and if there’s someone I had to lose to today I’m glad it was her.”
The Stephens/Keys rivalry could blossom into this century’s version of the Chris Evert/Martina Navratilova battles of the ‘70s and 80s. Whether either will become as dominant a champion as either Navratilova or the Williams sisters remains to be seen, but last Saturday’s Open final certainly sets the stage for more memorable battles between Stephens and Keys in the future.