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Nothing but positives can come out of US Open women's final

NEW YORK -- It didn't matter what happened in the second match Thursday night. No matter the winner, the future of American women's tennis would be on full display in Saturday's final, after Sloane Stephens upset Venus Williams 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 and guaranteed the US Open would crown its first American women's champ not named Williams since 1998.

"I have no words to describe what I'm feeling, what it took to get here," Stephens, 24, said after her match. "Making my first Grand Slam final, I think it's a little bit more overwhelming because this is the US Open. This is home. My family is here. I have the most amazing crowd. I have the most amazing support. It just feels different."

Different, she explained, than she thought it might feel like to make the final of a major when she watched her first Grand Slam final on TV as a 12-year-old. That year, Venus Williams defeated Lindsay Davenport in an all-American final at Wimbledon in 2005.

Throughout this tournament, Stephens has talked about her reverence for the elder Williams, an "elegant, graceful competitor" whom Stephens says she's honored to call her contemporary.

A little more than an hour after Stephens' thrilling win over Williams, 22-year-old Madison Keys defeated CoCo Vandeweghe in straight sets to make her first Grand Slam final.

On the 60th anniversary of Althea Gibson's historic US Open victory, two African-American women will walk onto Arthur Ashe Stadium to contest the final at Flushing Meadows. It will be the first all-American final without a Williams sister in New York since Martina Navratilova defeated Chris Evert in 1984.

"I don't think there is any other word to describe it than 'amazing' for me and Maddie," Stephens said. "We are following in Venus' footsteps. She's been here. She's represented the game so well as an African-American woman. Maddie and I are here to join her and represent just as well as she has in the past."

Throughout the past few years, and especially during the first week of this tournament, tennis pundits have bemoaned the lack of drama in the women's game and the drought that has plagued American tennis.

This non-Williams all-American final is not the Cubs or Red Sox winning the World Series, or Cleveland bringing home an NBA title after a lengthy drought. But it erases the question marks hanging over the heads of the next generation. American women playing in the semis and finals of a Slam is not a fluke. It is not a drill. It is to be expected from here on out.

In some ways, Williams' loss might have been the best outcome for American tennis. Because for the next several days, these young American women are all we will be talking about. It will be five months before another player has an opportunity to win a major, and for the next 365 days, one of these two women will be the defending US Open champion.

This tournament has created fresh rivalries, scripted new storylines and breathed life into a sport that cannot survive forever on the Williams sisters alone.

"I don't want anyone to ever ask me about the state of American tennis ever again," Stephens said in her postmatch news conference. "The proof is in the pudding. So, we don't ever need to discuss the state of American tennis.

"I think we are doing great. Four Americans in the semifinals and a Fed Cup final. ... American women and men have stepped up in an amazing way. I don't think anyone should ever -- at least not for, like, 10 years -- question it."

With her semifinal win, Stephens, who was ranked No. 957 in the world just one month ago, will move up to at least No. 22 in the world and becomes only the fourth unseeded player to make a US Open final. She could become only the second unseeded player to win at Flushing Meadows since Kim Clijsters in 2009.

Keys entered the tournament ranked No. 16 in the world and hot off a win in Stanford last month. She and Stephens have faced each other only once, in the first round of Miami in 2015, and Stephens won in straight sets. But that was before Stephens missed nearly a year because of a foot injury that eventually required surgery. During that time, she re-found her footwork and passion for the game in PT.

"Sloane is a new person right now," Keys said of Stephens after her match. "She's really loving being out on the court again, and she's playing really well."

When asked to give a scouting report on Keys, Stephens reluctantly did so, saying it is tough to break down the game of a close friend, and it will be equally tough to face Keys on Saturday, knowing they are both playing in their first Grand Slam final.

"She plays a lot of first-ball tennis, first-strike tennis. She plays aggressive," Stephens said. "I don't do that. I use my wheels more and make sure I get a lot of balls back and make the other person play. It's obviously going to be tough. It's not easy playing a friend."

No matter which woman wins, it's advantage USA.