By Steve Keating
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens will put their friendship to a grand slam test on Saturday when the best friends battle in the final of the U.S. Open.
After a long wait the new generation of American tennis will step into the Arthur Ashe Stadium spotlight for an intriguing final featuring two players who missed the start of the season while recovering from injuries but returned in spectacular style.
It will mark the first time two American women have played for the U.S. trophy since 2002 when Venus and Serena Williams met.
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"It's always tough but I think the interesting thing about us is we have kind of been around each other for a long time," said Keys. "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."
Despite their long friendship, the Fed Cup team mates have met on the court only once, two years ago in a first round match in Miami where Stephens came away a straight sets winner.
Their careers, however, have followed very similar paths, most recently to hospitals and an operating room.
No player has been more surprised to find herself in a grand slam final than Stephens, who just six weeks ago was ranked outside the top 950 in the world.
Sidelined for almost a year after undergoing foot surgery, Stephens returned at Wimbledon and has been on a tear ever since, knocking off 11th seed Dominika Cibulkova, 30th seed Julia Goerges and 16th seed Anastasija Sevastova and twice U.S. Open champion and ninth seed Venus Williams en route to the final.
Keys, who missed the first two months of the season recovering from wrist surgery, is peaking at the right time, picking up steam as she worked her way through the draw, knocking off fourth seed Elina Svitolina and 17th seed Elena Vesnina.
One of the biggest hitters in the women's game, the 22-year-old's power was on full display in the semi-finals when she blasted CoCo Vandeweghe into submission 6-1 6-2 in just 66 minutes.
"I was actually just laughing and thinking who would have thought in Australia that Sloane and I would be the finalists at the U.S. Open?" said the 15th seeded Keys. "Neither one of us were playing at the time, both just having surgeries.
"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."
Ranked 83rd in the world, Stephens will try to follow French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko by penning another underdog success story to close out the 2017 grand slam season and become the second unseeded player this year to take a major title.
While Stephens is fully prepared for a brutal battle, she insists what happens on the court will stay on the court.
"Love her to death," declared Stephens. "She's one of my closest friends on tour. It's obviously going to be tough.
"It's not easy playing a friend."
(Editing by Gene Cherry)