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Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys headed toward showdown

Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys headed toward showdown

It’s too bad recent US Open runner-up Madison Keys and champion Sloane Stephens can’t meet in a major final again, this time with the French Open title on the line. Both women are playing very well, but their showdown — if they get that far — would occur in the semifinals. Both are in the bottom half of the draw — the “half of opportunity.”

On the men’s side, the opportunity is, simply put, always the half without top seed and chief clay-court terminator Rafael Nadal. That would be the bottom half, which is also in action on Day 8 of Roland Garros. Here are three key fourth-round pairings:

No. 10 Sloane Stephens vs. No. 24 Anett Kontaveit (first meeting)

A narrow escape of the kind Stephens experienced in her overtime win over Camila Giorgi on Saturday can provide fuel for further success. After overpowering wins in the first two rounds, Stephens’ preparation for the heavy lifting required during Week 2 of a major is comprehensive. “[I overcame] a little bit of adversity,” Stephens said of her 8-6 win in the third. “I think I was most happy with just the way that I fought today.”

It’s always a great sign when Stephens is ready and willing to struggle and contest a match to the bitter end. She may need to reprise that mentality against Kontaveit, the little-known 22-year-old from Estonia. Kontaveit has had excellent results on clay this spring. She’s 13-4 and coming off an excellent run in Rome, where she knocked off a string of familiar names: CoCo Vandeweghe, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki. And Kontaveit is coming off an impressive 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4) conquest Saturday of No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova.

Both of these women are versatile players. Kontaveit’s toolbox is impressive; it includes a quality slice backhand as well as an outstanding kick serve. She’s proficient at the baseline and good at keeping a rally going and redirecting the path of the ball. But Stephens is a better tactician, and her quickness around the court is superb. Her footwork and movement have been excellent at Roland Garros, and that’s traditionally been the key to her fortunes.

Prediction: Stephens, in a close one. She may be just 8-4 on clay this year, but she’s proved that she’s most dangerous when the stakes are highest.

No. 20 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 30 Fernando Verdasco (Djokovic leads series 10-4)

Old lions still like to let loose the savage roar now and then, and if there’s anything 34-year-old Spaniard Verdasco is good at, it’s letting loose with a great roar. Verdasco has compiled 26 wins over top-10 players in his 17-year career. That includes sensational victories against Nadal and Djokovic in Masters events on clay. Verdasco’s prime attributes are a ground-shaking lefty serve and a monstrous forehand that he’s more than happy to unload any old time.

Djokovic has seen such wonders before, as the record suggests. But Djokovic 2.1 is different from the version that inflicted five consecutive losses on Verdasco, the most recent at the 2017 Australian Open. At the time, Djokovic wasn’t mired as deeply in his current slump. But now there have been signs that Djokovic is on the upswing again.

Both men have 11 wins on clay this year. Verdasco planted his feet and traded punches with No. 4 seed Grigor Dimitrov in the third round and emerged the winner. Djokovic is coming off a convincing four-set win over Roberto Bautista Agut — just the kind of quality player he needs to beat regularly again to fully regain his confidence. “I think it was a great test,” Djokovic told the press after that win. “I had to earn my victory. Last set was actually the best set that I have played so far in the tournament.”

Prediction: Djokovic is building momentum, and Verdasco has had his roar. Djokovic in four.

No. 13 Madison Keys vs. No. 31 Mihaela Buzarnescu (first meeting)

Somehow, Buzarnescu got to No. 32 in the WTA rankings without attracting any attention at all. At least not outside of Strasbourg, France, or Prague. Buzarnescu, 30, was a finalist in Prague a few weeks ago, and the week before the start of the French Open, she made the semis (and won the doubles) in Strasbourg. She has a 12-6 record on clay this year. You can bet Keys and her coach, Lindsay Davenport, began poring over YouTube videos as soon as Buzarnescu logged her third-round upset of No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina the other day. Buzarnescu has been extremely diligent and consistent at the baseline, trading as many as 25 shots per rally in that win.

New opponents, especially ones on the rise, always make players nervous. While Keys is easily distracted and thrown off her game, she has good reason to feel confident. She hasn’t lost a set in three matches, and her big serve already fired the third-fastest delivery of the tournament after three rounds at 119.3 mph. Keys will need to be patient, though.

She has become a better clay-court player. She told the press after her third-round win, “It’s more my own mentality. I feel like a lot of times I get too passive or too aggressive, and it’s finding that middle ground where I’m not playing a different way than I like playing tennis.”

It might be difficult for Keys to cultivate patience, or for Buzarnescu to handle the tension she’ll feel in the biggest match of her career. An unseeded opponent awaits the winner in a Grand Slam quarterfinal.

Prediction: The gap in big-match experience will just be too much for the Romanian challenger to overcome. Keys in straight sets.

Upset special: There’s a reason No. 2 seed Caroline Wozniacki has never won at Roland Garros. She’s been playing great, but No. 14 Daria Kasatkina will extend the hex.

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