Keys, Stephens battle for US Open title
>> NEW YORK: The all-American quartet was reduced to a duo on Thursday, as Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys advanced to an improbable US Open final.
The unseeded Stephens, who four and a half weeks ago was ranked 934th on the women’s tour, barged her way in with an impressive demonstration of nerve and desire to oust Venus Williams, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5, in the first semifinal in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
In the second, 15th seed Madison Keys played near-flawless tennis to overpower No.20 CoCo Vandeweghe, 6-1, 6-2, in only 66 minutes to set up the first US Open final involving two American women since Serena Williams beat Venus Williams in 2002.
It is also the first all-American US Open final not involving one of the Williams sisters since Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert in 1984. And lastly, it is a match-up of old pals playing in their first Grand Slam final.
“She’s one of my closest friends on tour,” Stephens, 24, said. “It’s obviously going to be tough. It’s not easy playing a friend.”
The only detraction for Keys, 22, came late in the second set when she took a medical timeout and came back with a wrap on her upper right leg. But it did not seem to slow her down.
“I feel great right now,” Keys said in an on-court interview with ESPN after the match. “I don’t think I could feel better than I feel right now.”
Stephens rebounded from a demoralising second set to upset the ninth-seeded Williams by breaking her serve at 5-5 and then serving out the match with barely a trace of anxiety in the biggest moment of her career against one of her idols.
When it was over and Williams, 37, was walking off the court to a standing ovation from the fans in Ashe Stadium, Stephens rose from her chair, too, and applauded the great American champion, who has been an inspiration to many younger players around the world.
It was a moment of class and respect, but immediately after the match the disappointed Williams could not take any consolation from the fact that so many players look up to her.
“Well, to be honest, I’m definitely here to win my matches, not for consolations,” she said. “That definitely sums it up.”
Stephens reached a semi-final of the 2013 Australian Open, beating Serena Williams in the quarter-finals, and played the quarter-finals of Wimbledon the same year. But since then, she had not advanced past the fourth round in a major tournament until this breakout performance. She only recently returned from a stress fracture in her left foot that sidelined her for 11 months. But she has been on a tear since then, and her ranking, now No.83, has soared in a matter of weeks.
Keys, who is coming back from two wrist operations, reached the 2015 Australian Open semi-finals, but this is only the second time since then that she has made it past the fourth round in a major.
Williams, a two-time US champion and seven-time Grand Slam champion, was looking for her first major title since she won Wimbledon in 2008. She reached two Grand Slam finals this year: the Australian Open, where she lost to her sister Serena Williams, and Wimbledon, where she lost to Garbiñe Muguruza in straight sets.
But on Thursday, she made many mistakes that cost her in the first and third sets.
“I just wasn’t playing well,” Williams said. “Those are moments where you have to dig deep and figure out how to get the ball on the court and have a big game. I can’t be tentative and try to figure out how to put that ball in.
“I figured out a lot, but she played great defense. I haven’t played her in a long time. Clearly she’s seen me play many, many times. I haven’t seen her play as much.”
As lopsided as the first two sets were, the third set was taut with numerous long points won by the slimmest margins. But as Williams huffed and puffed back and forth across the baseline and into the net, Stephens defended well and used her speed to chase down several shots that seemed destined to go in Williams’s favor.
At 3-3, Stephens broke Williams’ serve, converting her third break point. But Williams came right back and broke Stephens in the next game, winning it with a powerful backhand return out wide that Stephens could not handle.
Gradually, though, Stephens wore Williams down and made the most critical shots in the last set, including a brilliant forehand winner from an acute angle in the 11th game to go ahead, 6-5.
“I don’t know how I got here,” Stephens said in an on-court interview on ESPN after the match. “Just hard work. That’s it.”
Stephens powered through the first set in 24 minutes as Williams made 17 unforced errors, some of them the product of her being too quick to go for a winner, instead of waiting to set up the point.
Williams discovered her rhythm and played with momentum in the second set. But it was just a prelude to the third set, and the crowning moment, so far, for Stephens.
While younger players continue to strive for the top and many talk of a period of transition, Williams said she would still be competing against them.
“I will continue to play tennis,” she said. “It’s nothing complicated.”
Madison Keys reacts to winning a point against CoCo Vandeweghe.
Sloane Stephens during her match against Venus Williams.