NEW YORK, NY, USA - For the first time in 36 years, four American women will contest the semifinals on home soil at the US Open.
The veteran of the group, 37-year-old Venus Williams, is the oldest woman to advance to the semifinals of the US Open in the Open Era and is aiming to advance to her third major final of the season. Behind her are the trio of 20-somethings in CoCo Vandeweghe, Sloane Stephens and the youngest of the bunch, Madison Keys, each of whom are into their second Slam semifinals of their careers. Vandeweghe, Stephens and Keys have each shouldered their share of the load of being the anointed ones to carry American tennis into the future. On Thursday we find out who is ready to break away from the pack.
Top storylines for Semifinal Thursday at the US Open:
No.9 Venus Williams vs. Sloane Stephens (Stephens leads 1-0).
No one has won more matches at the Slams this season than Venus. On Monday she will return to the Top 5 after a six-year absence, one that was triggered by an auto-immune disease she has fought to manage over the years. If she wins her first US Open title since 2001 she will rise to No.2 in the world, behind soon-to-be WTA World No.1 Garbiñe Muguruza.
Given her phenomenal Slam season this year, it's easy to forget that, at the end of 2011, Venus' ranking had plummetted to No.103.
"[When I was diagnosed at] the time, the frame of mind is as an athlete and as myself, I don't accept limitations," Venus said. "So it took a while to accept some limitations. But it doesn't mean that the glass is half empty. I saw it as half full. Whatever I had, I had to do the best I could with that and to be the strongest that I could and be responsible for each and every shot that I hit. That's how I saw these last six years."
Venus has already made two major finals this season, falling short to two women who will have held the No.1 ranking this year: Serena Williams and Muguruza. Here in New York, she is the highest-ranked player of the final four.
"I think Venus is just our leader," said Stephens. "I think as a whole, she's just what everyone looks up to. She's a great player, a great person. She's a great leader. Being on Fed Cup teams with her, there is not anything bad you can say about Venus. I'm just honored to be able to play at the same time as her. I'm happy she's still playing. She means a lot to the game."
Stephens' journey back into her second major semifinal and first since her breakout run in 2013 has been far more sudden, but no less stunning. Six months ago she was carefully trying to navigate life with, as she calls it, a "peg leg", after undergoing surgery for a stress fracture in her left foot. It had been a disappointing end to Stephens' strong 2016 season, which saw her win three titles and rediscover the game that made her a breakout star three years prior, when she upended Serena in Melbourne in a life-changing win.
"The first one was quite overwhelming," Stephens said, recalling that 2013 run to the Australian Open semifinals. "But this one feels good. I think I have a better perspective and just looking at the game totally different. Just happy with where I'm at. Just looking to build on it."
The weight of expectation that fell suddenly on Stephens' strong shoulders after that Aussie run was a difficult one to manage for the then 19-year-old. America was looking for its tennis future and Stephens seemed to come out of central casting for the role of "The Next American Star." It was not a role she seemed comfortable in, and in many ways, her 10 months away from the sport may have been the best thing to happen to her. It gave her time to reconnect with friends and family, to process her meteoric rise, and, perhaps most importantly, to rediscover her pure love for the sport.
"I think just my head is a little clearer if that makes any sense," Stephens said. "Before, obviously, I was playing well. I had won a couple tournaments and was playing well. But being injured gave me a whole new perspective on tennis, on life, and just in general.
"I think now, as I said before, I play tennis for a living, and I enjoy it and I have a great time. I don't think there is anything else I'd rather be doing."
Venus and Sloane have met just once, a 7-6(5), 6-1 win for Stephens at the 2015 French Open. While the second semifinal between Keys and Vandeweghe will be power for power, this match-up will be far more nuanced. Venus will look to take the initiative, while Stephens will use her defense to set up opportunities to get Venus on the run.
"Obviously making semifinals of a slam is a complete neutralizer," Stephens said. "It's anybody's game. I just have to focus on myself and that's all I can really do."
Venus echoed a similar sentiment. "I have to focus on what's happening on my side of the court and make evaluations out there when I'm out there in terms of strategy and see what's working."
Madison Keys vs. CoCo Vandeweghe (Keys leads 2-0).
Keys and Vandeweghe have gone from never facing off on tour to locking horns three times over the summer. Keys got the better of Vandeweghe in a fantastic display of power tennis in the final of the Bank of the West Classic, and then the two drew each other in the first round of the Western & Southern Open, which Keys won again in straight sets.
Vandeweghe comes into her second Slam semifinal after making her way through the toughest draw of anyone in the final four. She has beaten Alison Riske, Ons Jabeur and then a string of top players in Agnieszka Radwanska, Lucie Safarova, and World No.1 Karolina Pliskova. She has yet to play a bad match, and when her serve has been under pressure she's stood tall, most notably stepping up to save key break points against Pliskova in the quarterfinals. She has now beaten the reigning No.1 en route to both her Slam semifinals.
"I think it depends on me, mostly, because similar to today and the other day against Lucie, Madison is a player that can take control of the points and of the rallies," Vandeweghe said. "I think if I allow her to do that, then she's going to be on the winning side of the coin. Similar to Pliskova today and Lucie the other day. So I think it's definitely going to depend on me and making sure she's not capable of doing that."
Few players can match Vandeweghe's power on the serve and return but one of those players is Keys. The younger American's weight of shot is far heavier than the power players Vandeweghe has played, and Vandeweghe found herself consistently pushed further back in baseline rallies during the Stanford final.
"I'm going to have to serve really well," Keys said. "CoCo has an amazing serve. Defending that constantly, I'm just going to really have to do everything really well. She's obviously playing remarkably. The fact that we're playing three times in a row is interesting. I think I'm just going to have to stay at my highest level and just wait for my opportunities when they come."
Keys comes into the semifinal having notched a comeback three-set win over the winningest player on tour, No.4 Elina Svitolina in the Round of 16, but her toughest match may have come in the quarterfinals, where she was the heavy favorite to defeat Estonian qualifier Kaia Kanepi. With Venus, Stephens and Vandeweghe already through to the semifinals, Keys was playing with the added pressure of making good on the promise of an All-American semifinal slate.
"I was really nervous," Keys said. "On top of coming back after having a big win the other night, and then all of a sudden being in a match where you're supposed to win, it was a lot. And then being the last American. It was really bad," said with a laugh.
"I texted Lindsay [Davenport] to have a speech ready for when I got here. But then once I warmed up and everything, I felt better. Sitting in the city was starting to make me crazy."
Keys took care of business, beating Kanepi 6-3, 6-3 to advance to her second Slam semifinal. In many ways she is playing with house money, having undergone wrist surgery just two months ago after the French Open.
"Going into this tournament, being in the semifinals wasn't really on my mind, so I'm really happy with getting here and excited to get out there again tomorrow," she said.
"Lindsay even said to me today, she said, If I told you after Paris that you'd be a quarterfinalist at the US Open, would you believe me? I said, There's no way. So having all of the things that were kind of thrown at me this whole year and having some really low moments and - there was a moment where I came off the court, and I said, I don't know if I'm ever going to win a tennis match again.
"There was definitely a lot of dark moments. To have this really feels good and makes me really proud of myself."
Regardless of how the match goes, this is a fierce but friendly rivalry that we will undoubtedly be seeing for many years to come.
"The younger ones were looking at Lindsay [Davenport], Jennifer [Capriati], and Serena and Venus," Vandeweghe said. "I think that still holds. We wanted to be those same players in a later generation."