About six weeks ago, Sloane Stephens was the 957th-ranked player in the world. This last winter, she was hobbling around on crutches and wondering where her career was going to lead after being forced to sit out for nearly 11 months.
Wondrously, surprisingly, almost shockingly, it has led to the U.S. Open women’s final, the first Grand Slam final of her career. To reach that final, she took out a legendary seven-time Grand Slam winner.
In a match of tidal ebb and flow, Stephens beat Venus Williams, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5, at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday night. It was the first match the two had ever played against each other and one that will be deeply etched in Stephens’ memory.
“She is one of the most graceful, elegant players ever,” Stephens said. “I am honored that I played when she played, that I could play her tonight.”
Stephens will play Madison Keys in Saturday’s final. Keys was dominant in a 6-1, 6-2 win over CoCo Vandeweghe that completed a night with four Americans in the semis.
“Fortunately but unfortunately, I had to play Venus, but having four Americans in the semifinals, I think that says a lot about American tennis and where we are right now,” Stephens said. “I don’t think I would have had it any other way. I’m just super-proud and honored to be a part of what these four girls were, what we did tonight.”
We begin the match in the third set, because that’s where it began. The first two sets were ho-hum drubbings. Stephens took the first set, though she did not have a grip on the match as much as Williams lacked a grip on her game. Then, to start the second set, Williams fought off three break points and went to four deuces to hold serve. Now it was Stephens who was losing her grip, and Williams won with a bagel.
Williams was broken to start the third set, and she broke Stephens in the fourth game to even it. Now the tennis was getting seriously good, long rallies that held the crowd in awe and had them clamoring for more at every point’s conclusion.
The key was Stephens fighting back from down 0-40 on her serve in the sixth game. They exchanged breaks in the seventh and eighth games, playing a whole bunch of “wowser” shots.
Then Stephens got the final break of Williams’ serve in the 11th game and held for the match. The third set took 70 minutes, 16 minutes more than the first two.
Stephens was one of the comeback stories in the women’s draw. After a left-foot injury incurred at the 2016 Rio Olympics led to surgery, she returned at Wimbledon with a renewed love of the game and zero expectations. She lost in the opening round there, and in the next tournament. But then she made the semis of the Toronto and Cincinnati events. At the end of this tournament, she will be within the top 35 in the world.
It’s almost inconceivable that Williams, 37, could have had this grand of a season in the Grand Slams. She lost to sister Serena in the Australian final, Serena’s last tournament before announcing her pregnancy. She lost to Garbine Muguruza in the Wimbledon final. And she lost in the semifinals at the U.S. Open.
Of course, Williams is a continuing comeback story, having been diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome in 2011. The energy-sapping immune system condition has never been her excuse.
And there were no excuses Thursday night after a closely contested match.
“It was definitely well competed,” Williams said. “In the end, she ended up winning more points than I did. That’s what it adds up to.”