Stephens and Keys putting friendship on hold for final
Not being able to play tennis has propelled Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys into an unlikely final showdown at the US Open. When Serena and Venus Williams were doing battle in the last all-American Grand Slam final at the Australian Open in January, Keys and Stephens were both recuperating at home.
Stephens had just had foot surgery and would be sidelined for 10 months in total, while Keys was recovering from her first wrist operation and would have another three months ago.
"I think we both just texted each other and said, 'This really sucks'," recalled Keys.
They have known each other since they were juniors and have been through the same pressures after being hailed the next great American hope.
Both reached the Australian Open semi-finals aged 19, Stephens in 2013 and Keys two years ago, before discovering the road to the top is full of bumps and bends.
Now one will become the first American woman other than the Williams sisters to win a Grand Slam singles title in 15 years.
Keys said: "I think time away is good. You realise how much you love doing this and being on the road and playing tennis. I think that's Sloane and me right now. I think we're both just loving our time on court, and I think it's really showing.
"I was laughing and thinking who would have thought in Australia that Sloane and I would be the finalists at the US Open. It's really amazing.
"I have known Sloane for a long time, and she's a close friend of mine. So 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.
"Whenever we are around, we try to go to dinner with each other and hang out. More than that, she's someone who I know is always there watching, and she'll text me no matter what. We are always keeping tabs on each other and rooting for each other."
It will be a clash of styles, between the first-strike tennis of Keys and the athletic prowess of Stephens, who has married attack and defence so brilliantly this tournament.
The 24-year-old has also shown what a good competitor she is, surviving a deciding tie-break in the quarter-finals against Anastasija Sevastova and then coming from 5-4 down in the final set to defeat Venus Williams on Thursday.
Asked what she had learned about herself, Stephens, who is playing just her fifth tournament of the year, said: "That I'm a real fighter, that I have a lot of grit. Surprising.
"I'm not just going to give it to someone. I'm not just going to let them take it from me. I'm going to make sure I give everything that I have, and I leave everything on the court at all times, no matter what."
Stephens and Keys have met just once before, in Miami two and a half years ago, when the former won comfortably.
Stephens expects what has gone before to count for little, saying: "It's a Grand Slam final, so it's obviously a neutraliser.
"Both players have so many emotions and things going through their head, maybe not the same things, but thinking about different stuff.
"When you get to a final, it's a final, especially a Grand Slam final. There's no way to say, 'Oh, she's going to wipe her off the court or she's going to play better'. It's anyone's game. You have to come and bring your own game."