They spent countless hours chasing big dreams on the tennis courts of Plantation, Coral Springs and Boca Raton, and all the hard work will seem worth it Thursday as Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys play in the first all-American French Open semifinal since 2002, when Serena Williams beat defending champion Jennifer Capriati.
The last time Stephens and Keys met was in the final of the 2017 U.S. Open, which Stephens won easily, 6-3, 6-0. Stephens has won both career matchups against Keys, the other one 6-4, 6-2 at the 2015 Miami Open.
Stephens, who is ranked No. 10 in the world, is a native of Plantation and coached by Kamau Murray, a former Florida A&M University player who established a tennis training facility in Chicago’s South Side.
Keys, who was born in Rock Island, Illinois, is ranked No. 13 and spent many years training in Boca Raton at the Evert Academy and the U.S. Tennis Association training center, which relocated to Orlando last year. Keys is coached by former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The two Americans have become good friends as they have followed similar career paths. Stephens, 25, turned pro in 2008. Keys, 23, joined the tour a year later. Stephens reached her first Grand Slam semifinal in 2013; Keys did it two years later.
"I always want to see Sloane do well," Keys told reporters in Paris. "I'd love for both of us to be able to be in the position to play each other multiple times. ... I'm always cheering for her."
The feeling is mutual.
"She’s, like, really the only person I actually watch, because I will be texting her during the match: ‘Come on! What are you doing?' ” Stephens said of Keys.
Both come from athletically gifted families. Stephens is the daughter of the late John Stephens, a former NFL running back who was the New England Patriots’ first-round draft pick in 1988, and Sybil Smith, the top swimmer in Boston University history. Smith reached the Olympic trials, and in 1988 was the first black female swimmer to be named All-American. She went on to be an assistant coach at Harvard.
The couple divorced when Sloane was very young, and Stephens did not have a relationship with her father until 2006. He died in a car accident in 2009. She was raised by her mother and her stepfather, Sheldon Smith, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2007.
Keys’ father, Rick, was an All-Conference basketball player at Augustana College. Her mother, Christina, is an attorney who gave up her practice for several years to move to Boca Raton in search of better training for her three tennis-playing daughters.
Keys was overmatched in the U.S. Open final against Stephens, but says it will be different this time. A spot in the finals is at stake. The winner will play either top-seeded Simona Halep or third-seeded Gabine Muguruza for the title Saturday.
"Honestly, the Open feels like it was 12 years ago at this point. I obviously rely on what I learned there and how to manage my emotions and manage the moment, but there were so many late nights and I was so tired," Keys said.
"It feels completely different here. I obviously lost to Sloane at the U.S. Open, but I feel like on clay it's a little bit of a different matchup. I'm going to have to be the one to try to open up the court and go for my shots."
Although they will face each other in a high-stakes match, they acted as they always do around each other in the past few days.
“When we get on the court, it's time to compete,” Stephens said. “But before that, we are not going to be weird and awkward and make it, like, weird for each other.
“I think everything will be normal. And then when we get on the court, it's time to compete. It's go time. Until then, we're the same girls as always.”