NEW YORK — The Year of the Beneficial Respite has a fresh U.S. Open women’s final that serves as an emblem. Two players absent when the Grand Slam year opened in Australia, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, will be present at Arthur Ashe Stadium on the final Saturday as the Grand Slam year closes this weekend in Queens.
“I was actually just laughing and thinking, ‘Who would have thought in Australia that Sloane and I would be the finalists at the U.S. Open?’ ” Keys said.
Maybe some wily wagerer should have.
After all, the respite theme has draped itself all over the year, more in the men’s game, but lately in the women’s, in a broken-down half-jalopy of a sport with its disagreeable elbow (Novak Djokovic), its rebellious hip (Andy Murray), its churlish knee (Stanislas Wawrinka) and its cantankerous wrists (Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic). In happier news, 2017 also had a major pregnancy (Serena Williams), something the men have avoided, as ever.
Rafael Nadal reached the Australian Open after a little three-month respite and reached the final, while Roger Federer reached the same after a six-month respite, won the tournament and said along the way: “You can only ever do so much treatment to feel decent. What I’ve just come to realize is when you don’t feel well, you have too many problems going on, you just won’t beat top-10 players. At some point you reach a limit, and you just can’t go beyond that … That’s where both, I guess, Rafa and myself, said, ‘Okay, enough of this already. Let’s get back to one hundred percent, enjoy tennis again, enjoy the practice.’ ”
Later, Federer missed 10 weeks of the snarling clay of the spring, and won Wimbledon without losing a set, flattering another respite. Nadal had won the French Open for a 10th time, restoring order to the universe after he hadn’t won it the previous two years.
At that Wimbledon Novak Djokovic, who would become one of five of the top 11 players to miss this U.S. Open, began to hint at the strains of an ever-more-demanding sport and its always-demanding calendar and said, “Professional tennis is getting very physical in the last couple of years. It’s not easy to kind of play on the highest level throughout the entire season, then be able to do that over and over again every season, and then stay healthy.”
Now come Stephens, who had foot surgery last winter, and Keys, who had wrist surgery last winter and corrective minor wrist surgery in June. There’s Stephens, 24, who told of sitting on her couch in a cast — “I couldn’t move,” she said — and watching the Australian Open. There’s Keys, 22, who told of keeping up with her longtime friend Stephens, who said of Keys, “Love her to death.”
“I remember I saw her before she went to Brisbane, or maybe Sydney,” Keys said. “I was in L.A. I had just started hitting again. She got there, and all of a sudden, I saw that she came back. I was just like, ‘Hey, what’s up? Why are you back in L.A.?’ She said, ‘Unfortunately, I have to have surgery. She went in a couple of days later. And then I think we both just texted each other and said, ‘This really sucks.’ I mean, from then on, I have always been talking to her and texting her, you know, keeping in touch. I think we have really helped each other. I think we definitely know what the other was going through throughout the year.”
Those two people, checking on each other, will bang balls at each other on the grandest stage — Keys on offense, Stephens on defense, mostly — and they will do so as players who entered this U.S. Open with season match records of a mere 11-8 (Keys) and more mere 8-4 (Stephens). Keys slogged through an unsuccessful clay-court season, then got the corrective surgery and told Courtney Nguyen at Women’s Tennis Association Insider that she “sat on my couch for 10 days going insane,” binge-watching “Shameless,” “Orange Is The New Black” and “Billions.”
Those who know her assumed she wouldn’t make Wimbledon, but she said: “I was in lots of pain on clay, it’s my least-favorite surface, and I didn’t do very well. And now you’re telling me that I’m going to miss my favorite surface? Not happening.” She reached the second round there, then picked it up further on the hard courts and won the title at Stanford in early August.
While she was doing that, Stephens was at the Citi Open in Washington, just two months out of a boot, playing her second match of the year and falling, understandably, to 0-2. She thought then if she could just beat someone, she might start beating others. That did happen, and 14 highbrow wins later, most lately a 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 wonder over Venus Williams, here she is opposite Keys, their tool kits containing one fresh similarity.
It’s gratefulness, and apparently it helps.
“I think it was just kind of, like, eye-opening,” Stephens said of the respite. “When I wasn’t playing, like, of course I loved my time off, but when I got back to playing tennis, it was, like, this is where I want to be. This is what I love doing. Over time, it was just kind of like, This is fun, this is great, actually.”
“You realize how much you love doing this and being on the road and playing tennis,” Keys said of her respite. “So I think you just really appreciate being out here. I think that’s Sloane and me right now.”
With that, another prospect looms, four months away. The 2018 Australian Open could be a post-respite bonanza: Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Nishikori, Raonic and, of course, 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams.
Hers would be, of course, the mother of all respites.