WHAT HAPPENED: This time three months ago, Sloane Stephens was hobbling around with a protective boot on her foot, the result of a stress fracture that required surgery.
On Thursday night, after sprinting out in front early and showcasing some unbelievable shot-making late, Stephens danced into her first-ever Grand Slam final.
Stephens defeated seven-time major winner Venus Williams, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5, in the first of the two women’s semifinals. She will now play either Madison Keys or CoCo Vandeweghe on Saturday, guaranteeing a first-time champion and ensuring that four different players will hold the four major titles for the 12th time in the Open Era.
“I have no words to describe what I’m feeling, what it took to get there,” said Stephens on the court after her victory. “It’s just a journey. I have no words. When I started my comeback, if someone told me I’d make two Grand Slam semis and a final, I would probably have passed out.
“It required a lot of fight and a lot of grit. I just worked my tail off and ran down every ball.”
That effort showed in the first set as she raced out to a 6-1 lead, and it re-appeared late in the third set as the match entered its closing moments.
A passing shot down the line – half swing, half push – from the backhand wing at 4-5, 30-30 came out of nowhere, as did an inch-perfect lob when Williams failed to do enough first with a mid-court volley and then an overhead.
The very next point, Stephens tracked down a ball that had clipped the net cord, sprinting into the doubles alley to guide a cross-court winner back across at the acutest of angles to help Stephens break to love and serve out the match for a spot in the final.
While Williams looked to attack the Stephens second serve at every opportunity, standing inside the court with her heels barely clipping the baseline, it was the 24-year-old American who was willing to take a step back to move forward. By retreating behind the baseline, Stephens decided to give up court position in order to get a cleaner, fuller swing at a waist-high ball. By contrast, Venus was hitting more half volleys from inside the court, often only getting enough on the reply to push the ball back.
An 85-mph double fault gave Stephens a 5-1 lead and a double break as initial silence turned into muted applause, more to rally the two-time US Open champion than congratulate her unlikely semifinal opponent, as deserved as it was.
The Stephens serve to the Williams forehand continued to cause problems, and she wrapped up a 25-minute opening set when Williams launched a forehand long. It wasn’t that the fans didn’t want Stephens to win, it was that they didn’t want Venus to lose.
While Stephens ran off five straight games to claim the first set, it was all one-way traffic in the second. After the lengthy hold to open the second set – a seven- or eight-minute game, featuring 14 points and four deuces – Williams broke on Stephens’ double fault. It was the first time Stephens had looked nervous on the outside; If she felt butterflies on the inside, she had masked them beautifully up until that point.
Williams rolled through six in a row and, after 54 minutes and five breaks of serve in a topsy-turvy battle, the semifinal went to a decider where the best tennis by both players occured.
The duo exchanged four breaks over the first eight games of the final set before consecutive holds made it 5-5. Stephens earned what proved to be the decisive breakthrough by breaking to love behind inspired shot-making, hustle and guile before serving it out at the first attempt.
WHAT IT MEANS: Stephens will play for her first Grand slam title on Saturday afternoon in her 23rd major. She's the 14th unseeded player to advance to a Grand Slam final in the Open era, and only the fourth at the US Open after Venus Williams (1997), Kim Clijsters (2009) and Roberta Vinci (2015). Only one of those, Clijsters, has captured the title.
Ranked No. 83 in the world, Stephens is bidding to become the fourth-lowest ranked player to win a major. Evonne Goolagong (1977 Australian Open) and Clijsters (2009 US Open) were all unranked. Chris O’Neill was ranked No. 111 when she won the 1978 Australian Open.
Entering the 2017 US Open Series, Stephens was ranked No. 957. When Monday’s WTA rankings are run, she will climb to at least No. 22, jumping over 900 spots in just over a month.
MATCH POINT: Stephens has overcame all of the odds so far, not only in Flushing Meadows over the past two weeks, but in her remarkable return from right foot surgery. After beating one of the greatest of all time in just her fifth tournament back, why shouldn’t Stephens like her chances against another first-time finalist?