NEW YORK, NY, USA - Madison Keys is ready to put her friendship with Sloane Stephens aside when she steps out on Arthur Ashe Stadium for the US Open final. Keys, 22, and Stephens, 24, are close friends on the tour, having grown up together from the junior ranks. On Saturday, it will be a battle between the tournament's comeback kids.
"It's always tough [to play a good friend], but I think the interesting thing about us is we have kind of been around each other for a long time," Keys told reporters after her semifinal win. "I have played Sloane before. I'm pretty sure she killed me, but I think it gets easier and easier as time goes on to play each other.
"You figure out how to separate your friendship from being on the court. Obviously, both of us want to win, and I think when we come off the court, we're able to leave what happens there and still have a great friendship off of the court."
After putting together her best season in 2016 and qualifying for her first BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, Keys underwent left wrist surgery last November and did not begin her season until the BNP Paribas Open in March. Stephens shut her 2016 down after the Rio Olympics due to a stress fracture in her foot and underwent surgery earlier this year. Keys had a second wrist surgery after the French Open. Both women returned at Wimbledon. Neither could have imagined just two months later, they would be playing their first major finals.
"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," Keys said. "Neither one of us were playing at the time, both just having surgeries.
"So 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.
Keys advanced to her first major final by dismantling another friend of hers, CoCo Vandeweghe, in a 6-1, 6-2 win in the semifinals. Keys was in the zone in that match, hitting 24 winners to just 9 unforced errors, and a disappointed Vandeweghe could do little but watch winner after winner fly by.
"I played really, really well," Keys said. "It was kind of one of those days where I came out and I was kind of in a zone, and I just kind of forced myself to stay there."
The parallels between Stephens and Keys' careers and seasons are hard to ignore. Both women were highly touted young prospects, who broke out as teenagers only to struggle with the ensuing pressure. Stephens' breakout run came at the 2013 Australian Open, when she beat Serena Williams to advance to her first Slam semifinal. Keys' breakout came two years later, at the 2015 Australian Open, where she beat Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams to make her first Slam semifinal. Both women were 19-years-old at the time and the weight of carrying American expectations was difficult.
But it all seemed to come together in 2016, with Stephens reeling off three titles and Keys breaking into the Top 10. The injuries and surgeries put a halt to everything, but it may have been a blessing in disguise.
"I think time away, just to take a step away from it all is good, but you realize how much you love doing this and being on the road and playing tennis," Keys said. "So I think you just really appreciate being out here. 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 think you take a lot of pressure off of yourself [during an injury comeback]. I know for me last year, my only focus was to get to Singapore. I kind of lost sight of how much I actually loved the game, because it was just every week, it was just chasing points. That's all I could focus on.
"Being away from the game and just remembering why I love competing and all of that, I think it helped me tremendously. I think not being there, it just made me realize how much I love it and not to put so much pressure on myself, which I think helps me enjoy being out there a lot more."
Whoever wins on Saturday will be the first American not named Serena or Venus, to win the US Open since Keys' coach Lindsay Davenport. Does that put more pressure on Keys to get it done? Not at all.
"I think, if anything, it's great that I have Lindsay in my corner," Keys said. "She's been in the situation and she can help me through it. As far as that, I don't think having her as my coach is more pressure.
"I mean, what better place to be in your first Slam final than at home with a great crowd who's going to be behind both of us. On top of that, getting to play my friend, I think it's just an amazing opportunity. I'm going to go out there and do my absolute best."