Stephens & Keys: Former Top 10 Players Turned Unseeded Floaters At Indian Wells

Sloane Stephens (photo: WTA video)

INDIAN WELLS/WASHINGTON, October 7, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

A pair of former WTA Top 10 players and best of friends, Americans Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, both faced difficult first-round opponents – and emerged winners – as the 32nd edition of the BNP Paribas Open began Wednesday under sunny skies and 82-degree (Farenheit) temperatures at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in the southern California palm desert.

After a two-and-one-half year hiatus, the BNP Paribas Open returned with the beginning of the women’s 96-player singles main draw spread across Tennis Paradise. Germany’s 74th-ranked Andrea Petkovic and No. 43 Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan had the honor of playing the first match in Stadium 1, the biggest show court at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. A determined Putintseva won 7-6 (2), 6-1 after squandering an early first-set lead to advance against her fellow countrywoman, No. 13 seed Elena Rybakina.

It took Putintseva four match points to put away Petkovic but she finally did so after an hour and 34 minutes for her 31st victory of the season. She improved to 4-1 lifetime against the German veteran, who is now 2-8 at Indian Wells, after hitting 21 winners against 24 unforced errors while converting five of five break points. Putintseva outpointed Petkovic 67-52.

“I came all the way from Kazakhstan. I played in Kazakhstan last week, so it was a tough trip to get here,” Putintseva said during an on-court interview after her victory, “but I’m very happy to be here. It feels super cool to come back here – even though it feels like 100 degrees here.

“I’m very happy to play in the desert, again. When I came, I was like ‘I’m back!’”

There were a total of 16 matches on Wednesday’s order of play to kick off the final WTA 1000 event of the season. Among the afternoon winners advancing to the second round were: No. 61 Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania, No. 109 Misaki Doi of Japan, No. 54 Magda Linette of Poland, No. 42 Liudmila Samsonova of Russia, No. 58 Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine and No. 45 Petra Martic of Croatia.

As the night session began, No. 64 Alizé Cornet of France, No. 52 Tereza Martincova of Czech Republic, and No. 100 Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus were joined by No. 63 Jasmine Paolini, No. 68 Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands, No. 96 Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan, and No. 44 Shelby Rogers of the United States in the win column.

Sasnovich’s 6-0, 6-4 win over No. 71 Maria Camila Osorio Serrano of Colombia advanced her to face US Open champion and No. 17 seed Emma Raducanu of Great Britain in Friday’s second round.

Wednesday’s BNP Paribas Open results 

Keys and Kanepi: Big hitters with something to prove

Two of the draw’s biggest hitters, the 50th-ranked Keys and No. 60 Kaia Kanepi of Estonia opened Wednesday’s night session on Stadium 1. They’re  both tour veterans with something to prove as unseeded floaters. Keys came in with a disappointing 10-14 win-loss record and had lost five straight opening-round matches – including to Stephens in the first round of this year’s US Open – and dropped six consecutive matches overall. Although Kanepi had fared better, going 22-12 while splitting her time between playing on the WTA tour and in smaller ITF events, in which she won two ITF W25 titles, she proved no match for Keys in the beginning. This despite entering the match with four Top 50 wins to her credit this season.

As it happened, Keys won 6-0, 7-5 in an hour and nine minutes – outpointing Kanepi 64-42 – to advance to the second round against No. 9 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia. It was her first match win in three months time and she showed her excitement and enthusiasm after securing the victory.

Keys came flying out of the starting gate and captured the first set 6-0 in 15 minutes, winning 11 of 11 first-serves points while outpointing Kanepi 24-4. She won four of the six games at love and garnered the last 17 points of the set. Then, Keys immediately picked up where she left off and held at love to start the second set, broke Kanepi in the second game and consolidated the break for a 3-0 advantage.

However, the Estonian prevented a double bagel from occurring after hitting her first ace while holding serve for the first time. Then, Kanepi broke Keys on her fourth break-point opportunity to wrap up a lengthy 14-point game to get back on serve. She consolidated the break and broke Keys, again, at love to push ahead 4-3. After holding serve for 5-3, Keys recovered and won the next three games to push ahead 6-5 with a chance at winning in straight sets. She did just that by winning the match on her fourth match-point try to reach the second round in the desert for the first time since 2017.

“Anytime you play Kaia, at any moment, she can start making all of her shots and that’s why she’s a such great player,” Keys said, relieved at winning, during her on-court interview. “I had to come up with some pretty good shots just to get back on track. I’m really happy with how I was able to manage the second set and come out with a win.”

Stephens and Watson put their friendship aside 

Meanwhile, the 73rd-ranked Stephens, also an unseeded floater four years after winning the 2017 US Open title, carried a 2-5 lifetime record against Great Britain’s 57th-ranked Heather Watson into their first-round meeting Wednesday. They’ve not met since Miami in 2016 and it’s the first time since 2015 that Stephens is unseeded at Indian Wells. After losing five of her first six matches to start 2021, Stephens has gone 18-11 since the Miami Open. Watson, who has battled injuries and compiled just seven WTA wins this season, arrived looking to break a four-match losing streak.

The Stephens-Watson match was at times a struggle – played under intense heat – and wasn’t always pretty to watch. There were a combined 11 breaks of serve. However, Stephens proved to be a survivor and, despite being a set and a break down, advanced with a 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-1 victory that took two hours and 51 minutes – and three matches points – to complete. It was highlighted by a 12-minute, 20-point fourth game in the decider that went to Stephens on her fifth break-point opportunity. She finished with 30 winners to 36 unforced errors while Watson hit 33 winners and committed 48 unforced errors. Stephens outpointed her opponent 125-111.

“Playing Heather is always a tough match,” Stephens said during her on-court interview after winning. “We grew up playing juniors together, and we’re really good friends. Before the tournament, we were talking in the parking lot for an hour about everything, and how we’ve been friends for so long and how we’re able to separate the match and still be friends. Then, we ended up playing each other in the first round, so that was unfortunate.

“She’s always a super-tough opponent and I always look forward to playing her. I  just competed really well. After the first set, that was disappointing to lose that one, but I felt like it was a battle and I was still in the match. I knew i had to keep fighting and that’s what I did, and I’m just really pleased to have squeaked out a win here.”

As‘s Joel Drucker wrote of Stephens this week: “She has been showing signs of regaining the form that for a time made her a major factor. At her best, she has all the tools to continue competing with the very best.”

In the second round, Stephens will face No. 19 seed Jessica Pegula of the United States, ranked 24th, whom she will be teammates with on the U.S. Billie Jean King Cup team next month in Prague.

Thursday’s BNP Paribas Open order of play

Passing shots

WTA and KPMG launch new health and safety connect app

On the eve of the start of the 32nd BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, the WTA and KPMG LLP on Tuesday announced the launch of a new technology application designed to usher in the next era of informed athlete health and safety care. The announcement was made in a press release on the WTA’s website.

A joint design by the WTA and KPMG, the WTA Health and Safety Connect app “will seamlessly and intelligently aggregate player and Tour data, apply AI and machine learning, and ultimately discover new high-value medical and business insights that will help shape health and safety standards for women’s professional tennis.”

What they’re podcasting

Match Point Canada catches up with chair umpire Marija Cicak, one of the sport’s best, who was in the chair for the BNP Paribas Open opener on Stadium 1 between Andrea Petkovic and Yulia Putintseva.

What they’re writing

Last week’s San Diego Open included an outstanding draw for an ATP 250 event that was put together in less than two-month’s time. New York Times tennis correspondent Christopher Clarey explores whether there will be a second editor of the San Diego Open next year or if this a one-shot deal.

“Quotable …”

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Coco Gauff, 17, on what advice she would give 18-year-old Emma Raducanu, who last month garnered her first Grand Slam title by winning the US Open.