This time, there was no need to avert your eyes out of empathy, no pathos to add the tint of sobriety to a jubilant occasion. Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, last year's U.S. Open finalists, played a solid if undramatic semifinal at the French Open on Thursday, and after Stephens won again -- this time in just over an hour, 6-4, 6-4 -- the mood was different and so was the main storyline.
The theme left when the red dust settled is the remarkable evolution of Sloane Stephens, not the woes associated with playing -- and ruthlessly crushing -- a dear friend. This outcome also was yards better for Keys; she leaves Roland Garros a much-improved player on clay, presumably flush with confidence as the grass courts she prefers beckon.
The other day, Keys said that her collapse in the U.S. Open final "feels like it was 12 years ago." She then went out and played like it, losing not due to anxiety, emotional turmoil, or the failure of nerve. She lost because Stephens has jumped to a new plateau in her development, and clay provides the greatest reward for her talents.
"In a lot of ways it was the same, in a lot of ways it was different," Keys said, when asked by the press to compare the two recent experiences. "I think Sloane played incredibly well, and it was a much better match for me than the U.S. Open. So, lots of positives."
The plot of this match was straightforward, with no queasy emotional overtones. Stephens is extremely smooth. She anticipates beautifully, moves smoothly and is content to play mobile chess, using the entire red-dirt board and all her dangerous pieces: the down-the-line backhand, the soft cross-court slice, the drop shot.
As Tennis Channel analyst Martina Navratilova said on air, "Sloane looks like she can play from the baseline all day, she's so composed ... Madison, you're holding your breath each time she hits."
That wasn't really a criticism as much as a comment on the way Keys is still hamstrung between the explosive style that comes naturally and accepting that clay requires patience. The numbers tell all: Stephens made just 11 unforced errors, 30 fewer than Keys; she also tagged just nine winners, while Keys had 25. Stephens kept Keys guessing, mixing pace and direction. She distributed her shots nearly equally across all three areas of the court -- left, center, right. It was a masterful performance that ought to leave Stephens confident before the final against Simona Halep.
Pundits and fans have waited a long time for for Stephens' results to catch up with her talent, a process that may be coming to a head in Paris. "I think (I'm) just kind of getting older, more mature." she said, "Learning what works best for me and what doesn't."
The insouciance that once drove even some of her supporters nuts is proving to have a potent upside. She was unfazed during the eight-match losing streak (she went 171 days without a win) she experienced immediately after she won the US Open. Nor was she worried about her so-so clay record at the start of Roland Garros.
"I had a great showing at Fed Cup which I was really happy with," Stephens told reporters after her win, referring to the April tie in which she powered through both her singles against capable French opponents. "I had OK results this clay court season. I lost to some great players: (Karolina) Pliskova, (Caroline) Garcia. It's not really anything to put your head down about."
Stephens' reference to the Fed Cup was significant in other ways. She has the patriot gene. The other day, she reminded the press how "amazing" it was to have two American women contest a semifinal for the first time in 16 years. After this match, she lamented, "It's not easy. It's never easy playing someone from your country, let alone someone you actually, like, care about and you're friends with."
The Williams sisters are irreplaceable, but the way Stephens and Keys are playing and representing the United States is cause for jubilation of the kind that was muted by Keys' emotional collapse at the US Open.
When the rankings come out on Monday, Stephens will be the top-ranked player from the United States. It's a role she seems prepared for, even though Venus and Serena Williams have kept the prize out of reach for so long.
"That's cool," Stephens said, adding, "It's normally, like, Venus and Serena. So, let's be real. Like, if they were ahead of me, it wouldn't be an issue."
Chances are that the main challenge to Stephens' supremacy from here on in will come from Keys. Their games are as different as their personalities. Where Keys is earnest, Stephens is coy, where Keys is self-conscious, Stephens is self-assured. Keys is capable of overpowering any opponent, eventually perhaps even on clay. Stephens makes each rival die the proverbial death of a thousand cuts. That would make for a compelling rivalry. Given their progress, these two could be meeting in the semis and finals of major tournaments for years to come now that the uncomfortable bit is in the past.
"I walked off the court and everyone said, 'We're so proud of you,' and that was so great," Keys told reporters, describing the reaction of friends and family. "Not one person had any disappointment in their voice or their look. Things like that make the losses a little bit easier."
That was a far cry from the way Keys felt the last time she played Stephens. Read it as another good sign for the future of American tennis.