ALL-AMER­I­CAN AF­FAIR

Keys, Stephens bat­tle for US Open ti­tle

Bangkok Post - - SPORTS -

>> 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.

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