U.S. Open: Unseeded Stephens fights her way to final on strength of epic 3rd set
Stephens will face Madison Keys in all-American final
Two points from defeat against Venus Williams at the U.S. Open, Sloane Stephens summoned her best strokes when she needed them the most to reach a Grand Slam final for the first time.
Stephens was so close to defeat before taking the last three games of a back-and-forth semifinal between two Americans at Flushing Meadows, edging seven-time major champion Williams 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 on Thursday night.
"It required a lot of fight, a lot of grit," said Stephens, who is ranked 83rd after having surgery on her left foot in January and is the fourth unseeded finalist at the tournament in the Open era, which dates to 1968.
At 37, Williams was attempting to become the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam title in the Open era. She was trying to reach her third major final of this season, something she last did 15 years ago. Here's how long and successful her career has been: Williams' first title match in New York came in her U.S. Open debut in 1997. Stephens was 4 at the time.
"I'm honestly just honoured to be able to play at the same time as her, one of the greatest ever to play our game," said Stephens, who joined spectators in clapping for Williams when she walked off the court.
Williams was quite near to winning, ahead 5-4 with Stephens serving at 30-all. Two points away. There, they engaged in a 25-stroke point, until Stephens conjured up a backhand passing winner down the line, then wheeled and pumped her fists.
"Venus knows it's an opportunity lost," said her coach, David Witt, "because she had it. She had it on her racket."
At 5-all, Stephens broke with the help of a lob winner that drew a standing ovation from the crowd, and a full-sprint get of a short ball that she turned into a "How did she do that?!" winner at an impossible angle to love 30.
"There was nothing I could do about those shots," Williams said.
Soon enough, Stephens was serving out the biggest win of her career — and of her impressive comeback from surgery. She returned to the tour at Wimbledon in July, losing in the first round, and lost her next match, too. Her ranking, which reached a high of No. 11 in 2013, dropped out of the top 900.
But since then, Stephens has won 14 of 16 matches.
"I have no words to describe what I'm feeling, what it took to get here," Stephens said in her on-court interview. "Just the journey."
Meeting with Madison Keys
Later Thursday, Madison Keys dominated CoCo Vandeweghe 6-1, 6-2 to also reach her first Grand Slam final.
Keys had no problem with the No. 20 seed Vandeweghe or with an upper right leg injury that caused her to call the trainer to be taped midway through the second set.
The 15th-seeded Keys had her own recent health issue to deal with as she missed the first two months of this year after an off-season procedure on her left wrist, then needed another procedure in June because of pain in that arm.
"I think I played pretty well tonight," Keys said in what amounts to quite an understatement.
She had 25 winners to only nine unforced errors, never faced a break point and needed barely more than an hour to win. That match time would have been even shorter, except Keys left the court to have her upper right leg taped at 4-1 in the second set.
This was the first time in 36 years that all four women's semifinalists at the U.S. Open represented the host country, so it was understandable if spectators in Arthur Ashe Stadium were conflicted about which players to pull for.