Entertainment: Madison keys and Sloane Stephens have parallel lives on a collision course

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Madison keys and Sloane Stephens have parallel lives on a collision course

PARIS — The burgeoning careers of Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens have often run parallel.

The two friends made breakthrough runs to Australian Open semifinals just before their 20th birthdays. Both reached their first Grand Slam final at last year’s U.S. Open, which Stephens won in straight sets.

On Sunday at Roland Garros, each reached the quarterfinals of the French Open for the first time to complete a quartet of sorts. For Keys, 23, and Stephens, 25, the milestone meant that they had both advanced to the quarterfinals or better at all four Grand Slam events.

“Super cool,” Stephens said, grinning broadly at mention of the feat. “Isn’t that exciting?”

The 13th-seeded Keys raced out to a 6-1, 5-1 lead before 31st-seeded Mihaela Buzarnescu gained a momentary foothold in the match. Keys ultimately closed out her victory 6-1, 6-4 in 67 minutes. Later Sunday afternoon, No. 10 Stephens won with ease, 6-2, 6-0 over No. 25 Anett Kontaveit in 52 minutes.

Though her best results have come on hard courts, Stephens has long appreciated the feel and flow of clay court tennis.

“I mean, I don’t think that I’m such a great clay-court player; I think I just enjoy playing on it,” she said. “I think it’s a cool surface. It’s different from all the other surfaces we play on all year long. I mean, I just enjoy it.”

“But like I said, I’m no Rafa,” she added with a smile at the mention of Rafael Nadal, who this year is seeking his 11th French Open title.

Keys has had some strong results on clay — including reaching the finals of tournaments in Charleston, South Carolina, and Rome — but still finds the slow surface the least intuitive for her aggressive playing style. Her relationship to the surface is improving, slowly but surely, she said.

“Even though it’s still not my favorite surface, I definitely feel more comfortable on it,” Keys said. “I feel like, this year especially, I have been finding the balance of being a little bit more patient but also playing my game — whereas before I feel like I would go too far one way. That’s the biggest thing, just remembering how I like to play tennis but just maybe adding a couple more shots to each rally.”

That growing clarity was in evidence on Sunday; Keys, who has often been impatient during the long rallies that clay court tennis demands, limited herself to only 17 unforced errors, compared with 27 for Buzarnescu.

That would have pleased Stephens, who called Keys “really the only person I actually watch.”

“I will be texting her during the match: ‘Come on, what are you doing?'” Stephens said with mock exasperation. “But, no, I think she’s been playing well. Obviously in a slam she really gets up, so she’s going to make whoever she plays play, and I think that’s what’s great about Madi.”

Keys watches Stephens as well, which proved particularly anxiety-producing during Stephens’ 4-6, 6-1, 8-6 win over Camila Giorgi on Saturday, as Stephens twice needed to break to stay in the match.

“I had Sloane on and was living and dying on every point in the end,” Keys said. “I saw her in the locker room, and I was, like, ‘God, you made me nervous at the end.'”

Keys said that despite her 0-2 record against Stephens, she was “always cheering for her” to do well.

“I’d love for both of us to be able to be in the position to play each other multiple times,” Keys said. “I’d love to be able to get a win.”

One more win for each would set up a semifinal meeting here, though they probably will not be able to watch each other’s next matches. Barring a weather disruption of the standard schedule here, their respective quarterfinal matches will also be played in parallel, starting simultaneously on Tuesday afternoon.

Stephens will face the winner of the fourth-round match between second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki and 14th-seeded Daria Kasatkina, which was halted at 9:22 p.m. on Sunday because of darkness and will resume on Monday afternoon.

Keys will face Yulia Putintseva, a fiery Russian-turned-Kazakh who beat 26th-seeded Barbora Strycova 6-4, 6-3.

Keys’ newfound clarity on clay will be tested against Putintseva, who can drive even the calmest players to distraction with her emotive outbursts. Strycova, herself one of the game’s most expressive players, said she struggled to tune out Putintseva’s draining dramaturgy, which she believes Putintseva exaggerates to disrupt an opponent’s rhythm.

“My coach told me before the match that I have to focus on myself, which I tried to do,” Strycova said. “But she screams sometimes hard for the balls where I’m like, ‘This is just weird?’ But I guess she needs it — and she plays well when she does that.”

Putintseva, ranked 98th, reached the quarterfinals once before, in 2016, coming within 5 points of beating the top-seeded Serena Williams in that match.

Williams herself will be looking to rejoin Putintseva in the last eight on Monday, when she faces Maria Sharapova in a blockbuster fourth-round encounter. Williams and her sister Venus were eliminated in the third round of the doubles draw on Sunday, falling 6-4, 6-7(4), 6-0 to the third-seeded pair of Andreja Klepac and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

BEN ROTHENBERG © 2018 The New York Times

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