One-on-One: Sloane Stephens x Madison Keys
The tennis stars navigate the upper echelons of their sport as both competitive rivals and lifelong friends.
"One-On-One" is a series bringing you unscripted conversations between Nike elite athletes.
Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens first crossed paths on the junior circuit, where, rather than sizing each other up as competition, they became fast friends. Their professional tennis careers have led them on similar trajectories: going pro in their teenage years and being dubbed the next big thing. Ultimately, though, Madison and Sloane have established themselves as distinguished athletes on their own terms. For Madison, this has meant securing five titles and a career-high rank of #7 by the Women's Tennis Association. And for Sloane, it's meant a career-high rank of #3, as well as six titles, including a major championship win in 2017.
Although competition is a routine part of their lives, Sloane and Madison admit they're better friends than they are rivals. Through the whirlwind ride of major wins, upsetting losses, a global pandemic and the miles they've logged on the international tournament circuit, their bond has only strengthened. There's an ebb and flow of injuries and success for both athletes, and that, coupled with their respective growth, has made them both experts at compartmentalising the duelling factors of their personal and professional lives. In conversation with writer and editorial director Deidre Dyer, they discuss the evolution of their bond, the wisdom they've gained, their paths to activism and the Ls they've had to endure.
Let's start at the beginning: Do you remember the first time you met? What was your first impression of each other?
Madison: When did we meet?
Sloane: I don't even remember. I mean, obviously it wasn't very memorable if we don't remember, but I guess it's good that nothing dramatic or traumatic happened.
Madison: I feel like we were at the same tournaments a lot.
Sloane: In tennis, you're kind of just around the same people all the time. I think we were like, "Oh, hi, let's be friends. We're close in age".
When you go from the changing room to the court, how does your friendship dynamic shift mentally? What's required to move from friend zone to game mode?
Madison: I don't think we do it very well, honestly. [laughs]
Sloane: I go out and I'm like, "OK, just try your best".
Madison: I think it's because we've been competing our entire friendship. It's very natural that we both know that the other one wants to win that day. And it's nothing against our friendship or the other person; it's just sport.
Sloane: After you've been competing for so long, you know that someone has to win. I feel like with friendships, especially in sport and in tennis, you have to know it's not like you're friends with every single person. So, you kind of have to be like, "OK, this is my friend, this is how I'm going to handle it". I feel like Madi and I bounce back very quickly. Like we'll play, and then five minutes later, it will be like, "OK, where are you going to dinner? Whatcha doin'?"
How has your relationship grown over the years?
Sloane: I feel like we've just grown up with each other, so we've seen each other grow as humans—moving to new houses, buying furniture, new boyfriends … we've had a lot of the same things happen. Madi is obsessed with plants, and it's really weird and I can't relate, but she sends me some pictures of them.
"I feel like we've just grown up with each other, so we've seen each other grow as humans—moving to new houses, buying furniture, new boyfriends … we've had a lot of the same things happen".
What changes have you noticed in each other's game?
Madison: Sloane has always been the fastest person that I've ever seen play tennis, and it's crazy. 'Cause someone will hit a drop shot and you blink and she's at the net. To this day, she'll still run for a ball. In juniors, she was really comfortable making a million balls and getting everything back. As she's got older and been on the tour longer, she's become really good at balancing when to take a step back and make a bunch of balls, and when to be aggressive and go for a winner or just try to take time away. She's become really good at finding that balance in her game.
Sloane: Oh my God, that's such a good critique. That's so sweet. I think Madison has become so good at her serve. Madi hits very hard, and as we've got older, instead of just hitting super hard, she uses a lot more of those combinations, which I think have really helped her because her forehand is amazing. Over the years, she's really developed her patterns, which has helped her win tournaments. That's one of the best things about her game—serving and hitting a forehand.
How do you support each other when you're not on the court?
Madison: We've had a lot of moments where one of us will be hurt while the other one is doing well, and then it switches. We've been really good about helping each other through tough moments, mostly because one of us has just gone through something similar.
Sloane: Obviously, being injured is terrible. And I think before the  Major championship was one of the only times where we were both injured at the same time. And we were kind of trying to figure out what we were going to do next. Like, are we going to be able to play and compete in the same way? That was one of the times where both our injuries were in sync, I guess. Not that that's a good thing.
What's your mindset when you're in those periods of recovery, and what is the resolve that pushes you forwards?
Madison: I think we both go through periods, especially at the start where everything sucks, and we've both had our fair share of injuries. As we've got older, we've got a lot better at bouncing back quickly and thinking, "What am I going to do to fix this and prevent it from happening again?" We've both done really well to be super preoccupied while we're injured and find new things we're interested in. Sloane crushed school while she was doing it. I wasn't quite that proactive. I just bought a load of plants and spent all of my time putting things in soil. Sloane just finished school and then kept finishing school. And I was like, "All right, I'm going to go buy more furniture and plants".
Sloane: I don't love being injured, but I feel like I make the most of my time and fill it with things that I normally wouldn't be able to do. I've been injured around the whole calendar. I've been able to go to weddings in the summer. I've been able to do stuff in the spring just because I have weird injuries. I have to make the most of it. Obviously, there's a period of probably a week to 10 days where you're just very down, depressed and upset about it. Then you get out of that and you're like, "OK, what am I going to do now?" And I feel like during all of those "what am I going to do now?" moments I've tried to be as productive as possible, whether that's going on an unrealistic holiday or going to visit friends and family.
"We've been really good about helping each other through tough moments, mostly because one of us has just gone through something similar".
You've both been on the tour for quite a few years. What kind of advice would you give to younger players who are now joining the tour circuit?
Madison: Have fun and don't take anything too seriously. There's a lot of wins and losses in a year, and if you get too preoccupied with them, you'll drive yourself crazy. So, just remember you have a long career ahead of you, and what you think is gonna be your worst loss ever probably isn't and what you think is going to be your best win ever probably isn't. Keep everything in perspective.
Sloane: Exactly what Madi said. You're like, "Oh, I've lost five matches in a row". I'd be like, "Nope, I can top that". The next step is [losing] like eight matches in a row. And then you win a Major and then you lose 10 matches in a row. It's a hamster wheel. You've just got to keep going. When you break down the maths of it, it starts to sink in a little more. Think about it: In a Grand Slam, only one person can win, but there's … how many people are in …
Madison: A hundred and twenty-eight.
Sloane: Yeah. So only one of those people is gonna win. If you get to the last four, you're doing something right. If it gets to the last two, it's even better. I think breaking it down and being like, "no one's going to win every week" puts it into perspective.
Society is in a moment of unrest. In addition to the pandemic, we're experiencing a civil awakening and a new chapter in racial equality and social justice. You've both used your platforms to speak to this fight and pledge support. Why is it important to you to speak about these topics?
Sloane: It's important for people to use their platforms because there's so much education involved with racial inequality. You see a lot of celebrities and influencers using their platforms to educate people. A lot of things that I didn't even know or maybe Madi didn't know, I'm learning by looking at people's [Instagram] stories and the things they're sharing. Being able to read those things and educate yourself can help you see something from a different view. We've come a long way because people [originally] just wanted to look pretty on Instagram. And now, we've seen a little bit of a shift to more educational things and things that matter, like voting.
Madison: Also, everything has been heightened because we're in a pandemic. We were already stressed and frustrated and had a lot of anxiety, and all of this went into the start of this massive movement that we've now seen. We were all so in tune with each other that we were just done. This was the first time in my lifetime I've really seen a large group of people say, "This is the last time I ever want to see this and I'm going to actively do something about it". A lot of people just want to do their part. By speaking up and speaking about something they believe in, they feel like that might be the thing that finally gets us to not seeing it happen again.
Madison, you founded Kindness Wins, an initiative that's dedicated to elevating kindness and empathy on the court and off. Sloane, with the Sloane Stephens Foundation, you're investing in education, training and community resources for the next generation. Additionally, both of you are on the WTA Players' Council serving as advocates for your fellow players. Where did that passion for philanthropy and giving back originate for you?
Sloane: I grew up playing tennis at a club, and my first experience was amazing. I had the best coach and he was so fun. I always say now that the reason why I still play tennis was because of my first experience. I had the best time and I wanted to go back. I was like, "Oh my God. I really want to go see Francisco. He was so much fun. I had such a great time. I want to see my friends". I feel like a kid's first experience in whatever it is that they do, they kind of always go back to that. If you go and you play tennis for the first time and your coach is mean and it's not enjoyable, you'll probably never pick up a racquet again.
Tennis has given me so much in my life. I've been able to travel and meet people and do so many amazing things that I wanted to give that same opportunity back to kids who otherwise would never even consider playing tennis. Obviously, tennis is not a very diverse sport, so being able to put racquets in kids' hands who normally would not [have them] … that was a big reason why I started my foundation. I wanted to be able to have kids that look like me and look up to me be able to feel like they could play tennis. Even if you're not a professional and you play on your high-school team, tennis is a lifelong sport. When you go to these older clubs, you see people that are 85 and 90 years old playing. It's so amazing because it is a lifelong sport, and it can give you so many things. I wanted to just give that back to another generation and even more diverse kids that wouldn't normally ever even consider playing tennis.
Madison: I started [my foundation] because I had initially worked with a [different] foundation in the past called Fearlessly Girl. And it was really big on instilling self-confidence and leadership qualities in middle- and high-school girls. I went to a couple of schools, met the girls and talked to them and loved doing it. I wanted to expand on that a little bit more and not just be solely focused on middle-school and high-school girls, because there were so many women my age and older in the workforce who said, "OK, all of your messages are great, but we also want them and we also need them". I also wanted to make it really accessible to other athletes who wanted to be part of a foundation, because starting a foundation is such an extensive process. I wanted to create something that multiple people could be a part of, and we could expand what we were trying to do. I liked the idea of Kindness Wins because it's a pretty broad idea and you can give back in a lot of different ways. That was the best way that I could help the world a little bit.
"I wanted to just give that back to another generation and even more diverse kids that wouldn't normally ever even consider playing tennis".
Tennis has been ahead of the curve with regards to gender pay equity. How does it feel to have started your career with that groundwork already laid and in place?
Madison: We both feel very fortunate that a lot of the work has already been done. We're very thankful to Billie [Jean King] and Venus [Williams] for doing as much as they have for us. If they hadn't, we definitely wouldn't be in the position we're now in. We're still kind of fighting for more equality and for that equality to be accepted and celebrated. So there's still work to be done, but we're in a really great position to say, "Oh, we have it, but we could have more", or, "It could be more equal", or, you know, "More people could be excited about it!"
Sloane: Yeah, definitely. I feel like with the [WTA Players'] Council, we've learnt so much. It's already difficult as it is being women, not feeling like we're equal and not receiving the same amount of pay as men.
I think it's like an ongoing thing. It's never, "Oh, we feel great about where we are". We're always trying to do better. We're always fighting more. We always want more. I think that's a big part of being on the Council: fighting for people who normally are not in the position to say, "OK, let me think this through". They know they want more, and our job is to go out and get that for them. So it's always about trying to do better and fight for more and making sure that everything we get is equal.
Words: Deidre Dyer
Illustration: Sarah Maxwell
Reported: October 2020