NEW YORK -- For years, sports pundits and tennis fans alike have wondered when the next generation of great American tennis stars would emerge.
Well, it looks like that time is finally upon us.
On Thursday night, Americans Sloane Stephens, 24, and Madison Keys, 22, advanced to their first Grand Slam final with convincing wins over countrywomen Venus Williams and CoCo Vandeweghe, respectively. And while Venus, 37, and her sister Serena -- who is soon to be 36 and who gave birth to a baby girl last week -- appear to have a lot of tennis left in them, it seems as if the next generation has finally proved it can compete with the legendary siblings.
Stephens and Keys will square off for just the second time in their careers on one of the sport's grandest stages Saturday with a title and a coveted trophy on the line. Stephens won their other meeting in straight sets at the 2015 Miami Open.
The two played together at the junior level and on the 2014 U.S. Fed Cup team.
"She's probably one of my closest friends on tour," Stephens said Thursday. "Love her to death. ... It's obviously going to be tough. It's not easy playing a friend."
But this much is for certain: On Saturday, one of them will win the US Open, becoming the eighth American woman to do so in the Open era. And 60 years after Althea Gibson became the first African-American player to win at the iconic event, Stephens or Keys will be the fifth.
With Stephens' four career titles to Keys' three, the two have relatively comparable résumés, so which of the longtime pals has the edge going into the championship match? Here's the case for both players:
The case for Sloane Stephens
When Stephens was ranked No. 934 in the world just a month ago, very few people would have predicted her run at the US Open this year. Withdrawing from this event a year ago with a foot injury, she ultimately missed 10 months from the tour after undergoing surgery. Stephens recalled watching the Australian Open from her couch, unable to walk and wearing what she describes as a "massive" cast.
However, she returned in time for Wimbledon, and while she lost in the first round there, her hard-court season has been nothing short of encouraging. Advancing to the semifinals at both Toronto and Cincinnati, Stephens seemed rejuvenated and looked healthier than she has in years. She has jumped 851 spots in the rankings thanks to her performance in Flushing Meadows.
Having defeated top-20 players Dominika Cibulkova and Anastasija Sevastova and 2015 US Open finalist Roberta Vinci in her run to the final, Stephens has not backed down against formidable foes. Her win against Williams on Thursday night marked her fourth three-set win during this fortnight. That's grit.
Stephens told reporters after the match that she refused to let herself get too down after losing the second set 6-0 and just wanted to make the most of her opportunities. She's certainly done that throughout this tournament.
Stephens has admitted her long layoff from the sport made her appreciate it more than ever, and it's hard to think she'll let the opportunity for her first Grand Slam title go by without one heck of a fight.
The case for Madison Keys
While Stephens needed three sets to advance to the final, Keys made very quick work of Vandeweghe, taking the first set in just 23 minutes. The second set didn't last much longer.
Vandweghe called Keys' play "unbelievable" and credited her for being in control the entire time. While Keys needed a medical timeout in the second set for an apparent upper-leg injury, she showed no signs of slowing down when she returned to the court. She closed out the match with a statement ace.
"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."
Like Stephens, Keys missed the year's first Grand Slam; she was recovering from surgery on her left wrist. She played in the French Open but was eliminated in the second round, then returned home for another surgery. Weeks later, she played at Wimbledon and lost again in the second round.
But with just five wins on the season entering last month's Bank of the West Classic, Keys somehow found her stride and won the tournament. Still, she admitted thinking she had no chance of winning in Queens. But here she is, one win away from her first Grand Slam title.
Clearly peaking at the right time, she has knocked off three top-25 players (Elena Vesnina, Elina Svitolina and Vandeweghe) in her tournament run and has needed to go the full three sets in only two of her matches. Keys' power and dominance have been on full display, and she seems fully confident in her abilities.
Coached by former US Open champion Lindsay Davenport, Keys knows what it takes to win, and if she's able to play like she did Thursday, it's tough to think anyone would be able to beat her.