Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens were friends long before they completed their unlikely journeys to the U.S. Open women's final on Saturday at Flushing Meadows. They've played on the same U.S. Fed Cup team, shared laughs and dinners around the world, and dealt with the lofty and premature expectations heaped upon them as prodigies.
So it was natural for them to commiserate early this year when Keys' wrist surgery and Stephens' fractured foot kept them out of the Australian Open. Their shared disappointment flashed through Keys' mind on Thursday after each experienced her greatest success, with Stephens holding off Venus Williams and Keys crushing CoCo Vandeweghe in their respective semifinals.
"I was actually just laughing and thinking, 'Who would have thought in Australia that Sloane and I would be finalists at the U.S. Open?'" Keys said, smiling. "It's really amazing. I have known Sloane for a long time and she's a close friend of mine. To be able to play her in both of our first finals is a really special moment, especially with everything that we have gone through this year."
Stephens, unseeded and ranked 83rd in the world, will be the third U.S. Open women's finalist ranked outside the top 50, following Venus Williams in 1997 and Kim Clijsters in 2009 (Roberta Vinci was No. 43 when she was the runner-up in 2015). To get here, Stephens defeated Vinci, No. 11 Dominika Cibulkova, Ashleigh Barty, No. 30 Julia Goerges and No. 16 Anastasija Sevastova before outdueling No. 9 Williams in dramatic fashion. Stephens prevailed on the strength of great shot-making, steady nerves and competitive fire.
"When I came back from injury, I didn't have all my tools. I didn't know if I was going to be able to run down every ball, didn't know if my power and timing was still going to be there. I didn't know if everything was still going to be right," Stephens said. "The only thing I had to rely on was my fight and making sure every time I was on the court, I gave my all."
Keys, seeded No. 15, defeated Elise Mertens and Tatjana Maria in straight sets before going three sets against No. 17 Elena Vesnina and No. 4 Elina Svitolina. She ousted qualifier Kaia Kanepi in straight sets in a quarterfinal and totally dominated No. 20 Vandeweghe. "I was kind of in a zone and I just forced myself to stay there," Keys said.
Keys, 22, and Stephens, 24, have faced each other once, a straight-sets victory by Stephens in the round of 64 at the 2015 hard court at Miami. But they know what to expect of each other.
"She plays a lot of first-ball tennis, first-strike tennis," Stephens said. "She plays aggressive. … I don't do that. I use my wheels more and make sure I get a lot of balls back and make the other person play."
Keys praised Stephens' skill at defending, but said both like to attack. "She's going to get a lot of balls back, and she's going to reset the point over and over again," Keys said. "I'm just going to have to be patient and not go for too much too soon and just try to keep building points until I finally have the right ball."
No matter who wins, it will be a memorable day for American tennis. Considering how each woman's year began, it's a win-win situation. "I think we've just shown that we really love the game and that we are willing to work hard, do whatever we have to do to be back," Keys said. "But I think more than anything, it just shows that we can be put into any situation and no matter what, we're going to come back and do really big things."
Rojer and Tecau win doubles title
The 12th-seeded duo of Jean-Julien Rojer of the Netherlands and Horia Tecau of Romania won the men's doubles title, 6-4, 6-3, over No. 11 Feliciano Lopez and Marc Lopez of Spain.