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Sloane Stephens vs. Madison Keys: an unexpected journey to the US Open final

For the first time, two black women not named Williams will meet for a Grand Slam title

NEW YORK — Madison Keys can’t quite pinpoint the moment she met Sloane Stephens, but from the time they connected while playing juniors together, the two have grown tight.

“Whenever we are around, we try to go to dinner with each other and hang out,” Keys said. “We’re always kind of keeping tabs on each other and rooting for each other.”

Stephens can’t recall the moment she met Keys, but she speaks with great admiration about their tight bond.

“She’s one of my closest friends on tour,” Stephens said. “Love her to death.”

That love for each other will have to be cast aside on Saturday as the No. 15 seed Keys and unseeded Stephens will face each other for the US Open title, marking the first time two African-American women not named Williams will compete against each other for a Grand Slam championship. Keys easily beat 20th-seeded CoCo Vandeweghe in straight sets in Thursday’s semifinal (6-1, 6-2), while Stephens had to gut out a grueling three sets to beat ninth-seeded Venus Williams (6-1, 0-6, 7-5) in a match that took just over two hours.

Keys, 22, started playing professional tennis in 2009, and Stephens, 24, launched her career a year later. Both came up in an era when the sport was largely dominated by the Williams sisters, especially Serena.

Serena Williams sitting out this year’s US Open during her pregnancy was the tennis equivalent of Michael Jordan taking a couple of years off from basketball after winning his third straight NBA title in 1993. The field for this year’s tournament was wide-open, with Keys and Stephens making the most of the opportunity.

“The biggest difference was that I wasn’t playing Serena this time,” said Keys, smiling as she recalled her attempt to reach the 2015 Australian Open finals, her previous deepest Grand Slam run, which was ended by Serena Williams in straight sets in the semifinals.

The Williams sisters have played each other nine times in Grand Slam finals, beginning with the US Open final in 2001. With the bond between Keys and Stephens, you can call their Saturday meeting at Arthur Ashe Stadium “Sister Act 2.” It’s been an incredible journey for both to get this far, as Keys and Stephens both missed the first Grand Slam event of the year, the Australian Open, while recovering from surgery.

Stephens had surgery in January to repair a broken bone in her left foot, an injury that had her sidelined for 11 months leading up to her return to Wimbledon in July. She watched this year’s Australian Open in January on television.

“I had just had surgery, I had a massive cast on, I couldn’t walk,” Stephens said. “I was planted on my couch for two weeks, the two weeks of the Australian Open.”

At that same time, Keys was recovering from surgery she had last November on her left wrist. She had a second procedure on the wrist in May after losing in the second round of the French Open.

“Both times I went in for surgery it was a relief,” Keys said. “The first one, I was in major pain and came out feeling a lot better. Since [the surgeries] it’s been a big weight off my shoulders, and I’m playing really free.

“I was actually just laughing and thinking, who would have thought in Australia that Sloane and I would be the finalists at the US Open? Neither one of us was playing at the time.”

You could argue that both Keys and Stephens are playing the best tennis of their careers. Keys was 14 when she turned pro, and that same year she beat Serena Williams in a World Team Tennis event. Williams showered praise on Keys after beating her younger opponent in the 2015 Australian semis. “It was an honor for me to play someone who will be No. 1 in the future,” Williams said of Keys after that win.

Currently the 16th-ranked player in the world, Keys had her highest career ranking, No. 7, just before her first surgery last year.

Stephens, ranked No. 83, was just the seventh player ranked outside the top 50 to reach a US Open semifinal and is just the 14th unseeded player to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open era. Just over a month ago, Stephens, before semifinal appearances in tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati, was ranked No. 934. Stephens has beaten four top-20 opponents to reach the US Open final, which projects her to be No. 22 when the new rankings are released Monday. She’ll be in the top 15 if she wins the championship.

Asked to compare this year’s run with her early career success in 2013, when she defeated Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals, Stephens credited maturity.

“I was a baby then,” she said. “I didn’t know as much as I know now. I think, now, a lot of life has happened. I’ve been through a lot.”

“I don’t think there is any other word to describe it than ‘amazing’ for me and Maddie. Obviously with Venus, she’s represented the game so well as an African-American woman. Maddie and I are here to join her and represent just as well as Venus has in the past.” – Sloane Stephens

Which brings her and Keys to the high points of their careers on the 60th anniversary of Althea Gibson winning her first US Open championship.

“I don’t think there is any other word to describe it than ‘amazing’ for me and Maddie,” Stephens said of the historical significance of this year’s final. “Obviously with Venus, she’s represented the game so well as an African-American woman. Maddie and I are here to join her and represent just as well as Venus has in the past.”

The admiration that Stephens has for Williams was clear when she stood up from her seat after the match and applauded along with the sellout crowd as the two-time US Open champion left the court.

“Fortunately, but unfortunately, I had to play Venus,” Stephens said. “But having four Americans in the semifinals, I think that says a lot about American tennis and where we are right now.”

For Stephens and Keys, that means having a close bond. The two try to hang out together whenever they have the opportunity while they’re on the road, although that hasn’t happened in the past two weeks.

“She’s a close friend of mine, so to be able to play her in our first [Grand Slam] final is a real special moment,” Stephens said.

A special moment, no doubt. But after Saturday, just one of them will be able to walk the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center next year and see her image projected as a US Open champion.

“These are the moments that you dream about,” Keys said. “Did I think I could come here and be a champion? No, I definitely did not. I was just going match by match, just wanted to have some good ones and feel good every time I came off the court.”

Stephens, like Keys, is hoping to walk off the court with more good feelings.

“I’m superhappy to be in a Grand Slam final,” she said, smiling. “To do it here, my home Slam, is obviously more special. To make it in Australia or Wimbledon, that’s not home. This is home.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.