US Open final promises to be one of genuine merit between two African Americans, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, on the 60th anniversary of Althea Gibsons breakthrough triumph
It is unlikely the forgotten contender Sloane Stephens ever imagined her summer comeback would pitch her into the final of the 2017 US Open against her good friend Madison Keys but, after a fortnight of craziness, here they are. On Saturday they will put aside all of that to do all of this, and make a little tennis history.
For Stephens, just getting into the tournament was an achievement. She had spent 11 months out with a foot injury, the early part of that on crutches and wondering if she would ever play again, then she made a charge on the hard court scene here that surprised her as much as her rivals.
When Venus Williams was carving out her own fairytale at the Australian Open this year almost as unlikely a finalist there as Stephens is here the younger American was on nobodys radar but her doctors. After she beat Williams in the semi-finals 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 she revealed what she was doing all those months ago: I had just had surgery. I had a massive cast on. I couldnt walk, so I was planted on my couch for, like, two weeks. And I just watched tennis.
She got a closer look at Williams on Thursday but had to overcome an extraordinary lapse in the second set to overpower the ninth seed in the third. Williams, who has struggled with her own health issues since 2011 and is a monument to longevity at 37, switched back to her most introverted mode in a post-match press conference of answers shorter than many of the rallies.
That was unfortunate because it was hardly an inquisition; Williams, though, plainly did not want to be there and that could be interpreted, perhaps, as a sign of her undying will to win. She does not like losing one little bit.
This is the first all-American womens final of the millennium not to feature a Williams sister and will be contested by two players born in the 90s. The previous occasion came in 1984, when Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 on the old showcase court. It was the second of her four US Open titles.
In the 33 years since then, more has changed in tennis than the venue. The pace and demands of the game are not dissimilar, but the equipment is so superior and the courts so much more amenable to attritional strategy that Keys and Stephens can hit at near maximum power in every ground stroke confident that their efforts will land legally.
While that has encouraged bigger shots, it may also have drained the spectacle of variety: the price of progress, maybe. But there is a further, more significant, subtext to the final and, indeed the semi-finals, which featured four Americans, three of them African Americans. The history was not lost on Stephens.
I dont think there is any word to describe it other than amazing for me and Maddie and obviously, Venus, she said. Referencing the 60th anniversary of Althea Gibsons breakthrough triumph in this tournament, she added: We are following in her footsteps. Shes been here. Shes 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, and honoured to be here.
So in a tournament that has in many ways been tough to get excited about because of the absence of Serena, then the steady shredding of many of the big names not to mention, from a parochial point of view, the early exit of Johanna Konta we have a final of genuine merit. Keys will start a rightful favourite especially after her 6-1, 6-2 demolition of Coco Vandeweghe.
It was one of those days where I came out and I was kind of in a zone, Keys said. I just forced myself to stay there. I knew I was going to have to play really well to beat her, and I feel like once things started going, it just fell into place.
That was way too generous. Vandeweghe, who had been buzzing all fortnight, fell in a heap at the end, sobbing afterwards as she came to grips with her disappointing performance.
The winner, meanwhile, could not have been happier. These are the moments growing up that you dream about and to be sitting here as a US Open finalist, it feels really amazing.
It will feel even more so if she wins but, whatever the result, both finalists, friends for ever, will enjoy one of the more special events in recent tennis history.