By Jane Voigt
Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens are friends. But come 4 p.m. tomorrow afternoon, these two first-time U.S. Open finalists will set aside any affection and battle for their maiden title at a Grand Slam.
Keys, seeded number 15, and unseeded Stephens reached the final after a remarkable day of two semifinals that featured an All-American lineup, a first since 1981 at the Open.
The two matches could not have been different.
Stephens, up against Venus Williams (No. 9), was steadfast in her defense, speedy in tracking down balls, and committed to taking risks that paid off. She defeated two-time champion Williams, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5. Stephens victory and spot in the final is the farthest she’s ever gone at any major.
“I have no words to describe what I’m feeling, what it took to get here,” Stephens told ESPN on court, immediately following her win. “It’s incredible. American tennis here we are.”
Stephens run can only be described one way: magical. At the start of the hard-court season she was ranked No. 957, after having been out for 11 months with an injury to her foot. She is projected to move up to No. 22, at least. “I’m super happy to be in a Grand Slam final,” she told the press later, as reported by usopen.org.
The journey for Stephens was arduous. Not only were there months of rehabilitation on her foot, but she had to rehabilitate her mind, as well. Her negativity during matches had become, to some, the number one obstacle in her career. She either needed to adjust or get out of the game. However, the time off opened a route for full recovery.
“[I’ve learned] that I’m a real fighter. That I have a lot of grit,” she said. “Like, to myself, I don’t give up. I’m not just going to give it to someone. I’m going to make sure I give everything that I have.”
Stephens’ and Keys’ styles aren’t exactly the same. Stephens defends. Keys’ is a ball blaster.
“She plays a lot of first-ball tennis, first-strike tennis,” Stephens began. “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 victory over CoCo Vandeweghe yesterday was a blowout. Vandeweghe and her team got caught in traffic, truncating her warmup and siphoning valuable time needed to setup her mind for the match. She didn’t find her rhythm and her biggest asset, her serve, lacked its normal punch and power. As a result, she lost 6-1, 6-2.
“I didn’t really have much to do with anything out there,” Vandeweghe told the press, her eyes puffing from crying. “It was more Madison played an unbelievable match.”
“I played really, really well,” Keys said. “It was kind of one of those days where I came out and I was kind of in a zone. I just forced myself to stay there.”
Keys and Stephens may have grown up together on tour, but they’ve only met once on court: Miami in 2015. Stephens won in straight sets. Saturday’s title match trumps the Miami match by a long shot.
“You figure out how to separate your friendship from being on the court,” Keys began. “Obviously both of us want to win. I think when we come off the court, we’re able to leave what happens there and still have a great friendship off the court.”
The fact that these two women will play for the last slam title of 2017 has other ironies. Stephens watched this year’s Australian Open from the comfort of a couch as she recovered from foot surgery. Keys had her eye on the competition, too, as she recovered from wrist surgery. Both women broke through at the Australian Open, as well. Keys reached the semifinals in 2015, Stephens reached it in 2013.
Both women have benefited from solid relationships with their coaches. Keys works with Lindsay Davenport, a U.S. Open champion. They first started to work together a couple years back, then Davenport left due to family obligations. However, they were reunited last year. Stephens has had many coaches. She seemed to switch from one to another as frequently as her moods changed. However, two years ago she began working with Kamal Murray. The fit has been an exceptionally beneficial one.
Serena Williams absence has not gone unnoticed by Keys and Stephens. The 23-time Grand Slam champions’ spirit seems to have broken ground for them. Serena took the reigns at the Open in 1999, when she won her first slam. She since has won five more titles and Venus has won two. Whether the guard is changing, time will only tell. But there’s something in the air in New York this year and it has a distinct red, white and blue feel.