USO REDUX: KEYS VS. STEPHENS BLOCKBUSTER SET AT VOLVO CAR OPEN

USO REDUX: KEYS VS. STEPHENS BLOCKBUSTER SET AT VOLVO CAR OPEN

WEDNESDAY’S ALL-AMERICAN CLASH A REMATCH OF ’17 US OPEN FINAL; TOP SEED BARTY TO OPEN CHARLESTON CAMPAIGN

It ended in tears, with two close friends sharing a heartfelt embrace at the net in cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium. One had just played the match of her life; the other, in her own words, had been overcome by nerves.

Sloane Stephens was the 2017 US Open champion, a 6-3, 6-0 winner over compatriot Madison Keys, whom she had known since their days as junior rivals; part of a class of fast-rising American women who had fully embraced The Williams Effect.

“We are having a little celebration, and she is coming,” said Stephens afterward.

“She can buy me drinks, all of the drinks,” joked Stephens.

They’ve played on only two occasions since that fateful Flushing fortnight, most recently a quarterfinal clash here in Charleston in 2019. Keys would exact some revenge that afternoon, besting her top-seeded foe, 7-6(6), 4-6, 6-2, en route to her fifth WTA title. She finds herself in familiar territory in 2021, her Volvo Car Open title defense beginning with a second-round matchup against none other than Stephens.

Following her 6-2, 6-4 first-round dismissal of China’s Xinyu Wang on Tuesday, Stephens reflected on that moment back in 2017, when she comforted a tearful Keys at the net in New York: “One person is celebrating the best moment of their life, and the other one, in front of millions of people on TV, is having a moment. If it was the other way around, it would have been the exact same thing. You do what you do for friends.”

“We always play well against each other,” added Stephens. “It’s always a good battle. We’ve played a lot, so I kind of feel like this is normal for us. You separate your friendship from your professional life and the match, and you go back to being friends after.”

Top seed Ashleigh Barty of Australia will also open her clay-court campaign on Wednesday when she faces Japan’s Misaki Doi. The World No. 1 is coming off her second consecutive title at the Miami Open, and is eager to get her footing ahead of the European swing.

How will she manage the sudden hard-court-to-green-clay surface shift? Barty says it’s all about her fitness routine.

“I think you almost find a sweet spot as an athlete as to what training work for you. I’ve done a lot of work with my team over many years now. My team hasn’t changed a lot, which I think is also a massive part of it. My trainer [Mark Taylor] knows my body like the back of his hand. He knows what works and what doesn’t. Tyz [her coach, Craig Tyzzer] knows exactly how my body reacts to different surfaces and to different loads. It’s working with those two guys and also with my physio to make sure I’m strong and can move around the court.”

“I’ve done all my rehab and my prehab to make sure that the intricate muscles are actually going to be able to withstand lengthy times away and matches,” she continued. “Ultimately, matches are going to test you the most that’s where accidents, things can happen, because you’re trying to throw yourself around the court and do everything you can. It’s unpredictable. Working with those guys over a lengthy period, we’ve just learned. We’ve learned what works for us.”

Wednesday will also see No. 2 seed Sofia Kenin launch her clay season. The 2020 Roland Garros runner-up is eager to get some matches in on clay — on any surface, for that matter. The 4th-ranked American suffered a setback in Melbourne when she was forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy, and has yet to fully regain her Slam-contending rhythm.

“It was not the year I was hoping for,” said Kenin, who’ll face another American, Lauren Davis, on Wednesday. “I’m obviously grateful that I’m able to play after my appendix. Everything kind of took a toll on me. I had to take some time off. I’m excited to be back on court. I’m looking forward to it.”

Ashleigh Barty Madison Keys Sloane Stephens Sofia Kenin