It was always going to be an all-American final on Saturday, since four compatriots were duelling it out for the privilege of competing for the US Open trophy and a Grand Slam title.
The next generation of US players, represented by Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, prevailed in the semi-finals on Thursday evening at Flushing Meadows.
Both were struggling with serious injuries just three months ago, with Stephens missing 11 months with a left foot injury before returning in July, and Keys who endured left wrist surgery for the second time in 10 months.
It was definitely well competed. In the end, she ended up winning more points than I did. That's what it adds up to. Just made so many errors at the end there… I wasn’t playing well. Just wasn’t playing well. Venus Williams
The unseeded Stephens was first up on Arthur Ashe Stadium, taking on the legendary seven-time Grand Slam champion, Venus Williams, who was the clear favourite as the 9th seed.
It was a story of equal parts between the 37-year-old, nine-time US Open semi-finalist Williams, and the 24-year-old, first-time semi-finalist Stephens.
They alternated long stretches of streaky play, swinging between the brilliant to the bizarre as they both struggled to win more than a couple of games in a row.
After Stephens won the opener in just 24 minutes, 6-1, Venus took 30 to counter by bagging the second, 6-0, and setting the stage for a decider in which the two settled in to a set that finally narrowed the daylight between them.
Stephens shook off a second-set loss to go ahead 2-0 in the decider, then promptly dropped the next three games, then won the next two, and lost the next two.
At 30-30, down 5-4 in the final set and two points from defeat, Stephens hit one of the best shots of the tournament, a flat-footed, down-the-line backhand that sizzled past a stunned Venus.
It set the match alight, and she won the game on the next point.
At 5-all, she executed a perfectly placed drop shot on the dead run, going on to break Venus at love to go up 6-5.
From there, Stephens served it out, winning the last three games to produce a score line that was as odd as the match that produced it – a 6-1 0-6 7-5 victory that delivered the younger American into her first Grand Slam final.
Williams could not overcome 51 unforced errors that doomed her bid to become the oldest women’s singles finalist in US Open history.
In fact, she was undone by those errors, mainly brought about by the defensive-minded Stephens, who managed to track down balls and stretched out the rallies.
“It was definitely well competed,” Venus said. “In the end, she ended up winning more points than I did. That’s what it adds up to.
“Just made so many errors at the end there… I wasn’t playing well. Just wasn’t playing well.”
Williams will return to the top five in Monday’s world rankings for the first time since 2011, the year she was diagnosed with strength-sapping Sjögren’s Syndrome.
She was not amused when asked at her hastily-convened media conference if there was any consolation the younger generation of American players, three of whom made the semi-finals with her, have cited her as an inspiration.
“To be honest, I’m definitely here to win my matches, not for consolations,” she said. “That definitely sums it up.”
Asked about her plans for the immediate future, she was again succinct: “I will continue to play tennis. It’s nothing complicated.”
Stephens is 4-0 in WTA finals, having won titles in 2015 at Washington and last year in Auckland, Acapulco and Charleston.
“I’m super happy to be in a Grand Slam final,” Stephens said. “To do it here, my home slam, is obviously more special. I think this is what every player dreams about.”
Following on, on to the great stage, the No 15 seed Madison Keys kept her career record against fellow American CoCo Vandeweghe perfect, overwhelming the Californian, 6-1 6-2, in 66 minutes to complete the first all-American US Open final since Serena Williams beat sister Venus in 2002.
Remarkably, the 22-year-old Keys lost only three points on serve during the opening set.
Playing her fourth consecutive night match, Keys was nearly flawless, turning what was expected to be a very close encounter into a lopsided affair, dismissing her friend and countrywoman to advance to her first Grand Slam final.
The match was a master class in power tennis.
Keys produced 25 winners to just 9 unforced errors, controlling proceedings with her mighty serve and penetrating groundstrokes, finally harnessing her powerful game at the age of 22 and maturing into a real threat when she is on song.
“It still doesn’t feel real. I’m still shaking,” Keys said. “I knew I had to rise to the occasion. I’m just happy to be in the final.”
The only cautionary note for Keys was a medical timeout to have her right leg taped three games from the end.
“I definitely started to feel it,” she said. “I felt if I went too far it might be something more.”
Later she added: “I played really, really well. 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.
“I knew I was going to have to play really well in order to beat her, and, you know, I feel like once things started going, it just kind of fell into place. You know, luckily I was able to close it out the way that I did.”
As for Vandeweghe, she mused: “I think it’s hard to look back on it now, the way I’m feeling right now, but it’s an amazing experience to be in the semi-final, to be here playing for my country and to know that I worked this hard to get here, but it’s a pretty crummy feeling right now.
“Madison played an unbelievable match,” she added. “I didn’t really have much to do with anything out there.”
Despite being on the verge of tears during her media conference, Vandeweghe talked about how she battled during this fortnight in New York: “I’m most proud of how hard I fought through every round.
“Even today, as much as it was on Madison’s racket, I think to get to this point, to have this opportunity, was all about heart and desire. That’s what I can be really proud of through these last two weeks.”
Vandeweghe will climb to a career-best ranking of No 16 after her run at the US Open.
Stephens and Keys are friends and Fed Cup teammates, and they will now meet on Saturday in the biggest match of their young careers for the top prize of $3.7 million.
“I’ve known her for a long time. She’s one of my closest friends on tour,” Stephens said. “I love her to death. And it’s not easy playing a friend.”
Stephens, who was wearing a walking boot in June and ranked 957th in July, has won 14 of her past 16 matches, with semi-final runs at Toronto and Cincinnati.
“I have no words to describe what I’m feeling, what it took to get here, the journey I’ve been on,” Stephens said. “It’s incredible. I don’t know how I got here. Your guess is as good as mine. Just hard work. That’s it.”
Stephens beat Keys in the second round at Miami in 2015 in their only career meeting.
“Sloane is a new person right now,” Keys said. “She’s so excited to be out on the court again. I’m excited we get to play each other in the US Open final.”
Now 83rd, Stephens is the lowest-ranked Grand Slam finalist since unranked Justine Henin at the 2010 Australian Open and the lowest at the US Open since unranked Kim Clijsters won the 2009 title.
Stephens is projected to move to No 22 by reaching the final.
Since rankings began in November 1975 only two players, the unranked Kim Clijsters in 2009 and No.26 Flavia Pennetta in 2015 have won the US Open title ranked outside the Top 10.
Keys, who is now projected to rise to No 12, and possibly No 9 should she win the US Open, is therefore the favourite for the title on Saturday.