Sloane Stephens was two points from defeat against Venus Williams in one U.S. Open semifinal before pulling out the victory. Madison Keys faced no such test, overwhelming CoCo Vandeweghe in the other semifinal. Now Stephens and Keys, a pair of pals in their early 20s, will meet in the first Grand Slam title match for each - and the first all-American women's final at Flushing Meadows since 2002. Stephens summoned some of her best strokes when she needed them the most, steeling herself when so close to defeat and taking the last three games of a back-and-forth thriller, edging seven-time major champion Williams 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 on Thursday night.
"I have a lot of grit," said Stephens, who is ranked 83rd after having surgery on her left foot in January and is the fourth unseeded finalist at the tournament in the Open era, which dates to 1968.
The 15th-seeded Keys, who dominated No. 20 Vandeweghe 6-1, 6-2, had her own recent health issue to deal with: She missed the first two months of this year after an offseason operation on her left wrist, then needed another procedure in June because of pain in that arm. She had 25 winners to only nine unforced errors, never faced a break point and needed barely more than an hour to win.
This was the first time in 36 years that all four women's semifinalists at the U.S. Open represented the host country, so it was understandable if spectators in Arthur Ashe Stadium were conflicted about which players to pull for. At 37, Williams was attempting to become the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam title in the Open era. She was trying to reach her third major final of this season, something she last did 15 years ago. Here's how long and successful her career has been: Williams' first final in New York came in her U.S. Open debut in 1997. Stephens, now 24, was 4 at the time. Stephens and Keys have only played once before, on a hard court at Miami in 2015. Stephens won in straight sets. Away from the court, though, they know each other well. On Saturday, one will raise a Grand Slam trophy for the first time, at the other's expense.
"She's one of my closest friends on tour. It's obviously going to be tough," Stephens said. "It's not easy playing a friend."