Injury-hit pals Stephens, Keys battle for US Open crown

The Grand Slam crown both have dreamed about since their earliest days swinging a racquet will go to one of them at Arthur Ashe Stadium in the Slam debut final for each.

First-time Grand Slam finalists Stephens and Keys are the first Americans to meet in a US Open final since Serena Williams defeated older sister Venus Williams in the 2002 final.   -  AFP

Americans Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, devoted friends who battled through major injuries this year, meet Saturday in the biggest tennis match of their lives for the US Open title.

The Grand Slam crown both have dreamed about since their earliest days swinging a racquet will go to one of them at Arthur Ashe Stadium along with a $3.7 million top prize in the Slam debut final for each.

"It feels absolutely amazing. These are the moments growing up that you dream about," 15th seed Keys said.

"I've 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 we've gone through this year."

Stephens says it will be tougher trying to defeat a friend for the trophy she yearns to lift.

"I've known her for a long time. She's probably one of my closest friends on tour. Love her to death," Stephens said. "It's obviously going to be tough. It's not easy playing a friend."

Keys says the friendship will be set aside for the match like their bags of extra racquets and picked up once the contest has concluded.

"You figure out how to separate your friendship from being on the court, and obviously both of us want to win," Keys said.

"When we come off the court, we're able to leave what happens there and still have a great friendship off of the court.

"I definitely never envisioned it happening this way, but I couldn't think of a better person to have this first experience with."

Stephens, 24, spent 11 months recovering from left foot surgery, returning in July at Wimbledon.

The world number 83, up from 957 in July has won 14 of her past 16 matches, reaching the semi-finals at US Open tuneups in Toronto and Cincinnati.

"I was on a walking boot a month before I played Wimbledon," Stephens said. "I knew I was going to have to play my way into shape and I've done that pretty well. I got a lot of matches in. I've run a lot. I've played a couple of three-setters.

"My movement is probably what has kept me in some of these matches, shockingly."

Keys, 22, underwent her second left wrist surgery in 10 months after the French Open and won a July tuneup title at Stanford, but never dreamed she could win the US Open.

"I really was just going match by match, just wanted to have some good ones," Keys said. "Being away from the game and just remembering why I love competing, it helped me tremendously. It helped me not put so much pressure on myself."

Keys likely to attack more

Stephens beat Keys in the second round at Miami in 2015 in their only career meeting.

"Maddie is a great player. She's a power player," Stephens said.

"She plays a lot of first-ball tennis, first-strike tennis. 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 sees the match playing out much the same way.

"I know 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.

"She's probably more comfortable defending and not going for bigger shots before me, but we're very similar in a lot of ways."

That includes quickly finding top form after injury setbacks.

"More than anything, it just shows we can be put into any situation and, no matter what, we're going to come back and do really big things," Keys said.