US Open 2017

Unlikeliest of women finalists

Sloane Stephens (left) and Madison Keys
Sloane Stephens (left) and Madison KeysPHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Friends Stephens and Keys, with contrasting styles, face off to be a new Grand Slam winner

NEW YORK • A new Grand Slam champion will be crowned today (tomorrow morning, Singapore time) after Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys advanced to the US Open final.

The first-time Major finalists have also guaranteed that the Flushing Meadows tournament will crown its first American women's champion not named Williams since 1998.

The certainties belie an improbable showpiece.

The unseeded Stephens needed a protected ranking to enter the event, following an injury that kept her out of the sport for 11 months.

She was still wearing a walking boot in June after foot surgery and ranked 957th in July.

"If someone had told me when I started my comeback that I would make two semi-finals and a Grand Slam final, I would have passed out," the 24-year-old said after defeating two-time champion Venus Williams 6-1, 0-6, 7-5.

The semi-finalist in Toronto and Cincinnati will be the underdog again when she takes on good friend Keys, who saw off compatriot CoCo Vandeweghe 6-1, 6-2 later on Thursday.

  • FAST FACT: Madison Keys

  • 14

    Age Madison Keys made her WTA debut and won her very first match.

  • PERSONAL NOTE

    Her coach Lindsay Davenport was the last American woman aside from the Williams sisters to win the US Open title in 1998.

  • KEYS TO VICTORY

    • Serve well

    • Take control of the points

    • Overpower Stephens

Unlike the earlier semi-final that was competitive, Keys played close to flawless tennis in a one-sided affair, never facing a break point and committing just nine unforced errors while firing 25 winners.

The final will showcase contrasting styles - with sprinter against slugger, defence against offence.

"She plays a lot of first-ball tennis, first-strike tennis. She plays aggressive," Stephens said.

"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.

"It's obviously going to be tough. It's not easy playing a friend."

The Fed Cup team-mates share similarities too.

Keys, child of a black father and white mother, also struggled with serious injuries recently. She had left-wrist surgery for the second time in 10 months after a first-round French Open exit.

  • FAST FACT: Sloane Stephens

  • 957

    Sloane Stephens' world ranking just over a month ago.

  • PERSONAL NOTE

    Her boyfriend is former Sunderland striker and US international Jozy Altidore.

  • STEPHENS' STRATEGIES

    • Utilise her superior movement

    • Extend rallies

    • Test Keys' right thigh, which was heavily strapped during her semi-final match

Both have been touted as the future of American tennis over the years and represent the game as African-American women.

"It's the inspiration and the demonstration effect Venus and Serena (Williams) have had, making the game more accessible for African-American families, making it something they can aspire to," Martin Blackman, the general manager for player development at the United States Tennis Association, told The New York Times.

World No. 83 Stephens is the lowest-ranked Slam finalist since unranked Justine Henin at the 2010 Australian Open and the lowest at the US Open since unranked Kim Clijsters won the 2009 title.

But she enters Arthur Ashe Stadium today with a perfect 4-0 record in WTA finals, having won titles in 2015 in Washington and last year in Auckland, Acapulco and Charleston.

She also beat Keys, 22, in the second round in Miami in 2015 in their only career meeting.

But Keys knows that much has changed since and is determined to enjoy the biggest match of her career.

"Sloane is a new person right now. She's really loving being out on the court again, and she's playing really well," said the 15th seed.

"I can't think of a better person to have this first experience with."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2017, with the headline 'Unlikeliest of women finalists'. Print Edition | Subscribe