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U.S. Open: Venus Williams vs. Sloane Stephens is a look into past and future

This Newsday composite images shows Venus Williams, left,

This Newsday composite images shows Venus Williams, left, and Sloane Stephens at the 2017 U.S. Open. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The glorious past and the promising future meet Thursday night on Arthur Ashe Stadium in the exciting present.

Venus Williams, holder of seven Grand Slam titles, meets Sloane Stephens, seeking her first, in a semifinal that will put an American woman through to the final.

At 37, Williams is hunting down a third U.S. Open title 16 years after she won the second of her two championships. At 24, Stephens has reached the second Grand Slam semifinal of her career, the other in 2013 at the Australian Open during her best season when she was only 20.

Once looked as the successor to the Williams sisters, Stephens’ career has idled, and she was completely on idle for nearly 11 months with a foot injury that required surgery. She returned at Wimbledon, and surprisingly reached two hardcourt semifinals this summer.

Former Long Islander Paul Annacone, who coached Stephens for a few months from 2013 to 2014, sees a much more mature Stephens who, because she was forced out of the game for so long, has come back with a renewed love for it. During her recovery, Stephens worked with Annacone commentating on the Tennis Channel.

“She has shown incredible resiliency,” Annacone said on Wednesday. “I think the injury gave her a view of her tennis mortality and an appreciation of what the sport meant to her. And her resiliency in overcoming the injury has carried over to the matches where, when she gets down, she has shown the ability to fight back, particularly in third sets.”

In a sense, Williams is continually on the comeback after being diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome in 2011, an energy-sapping blood disorder. She is continually fighting two opponents, but has looked very strong at the Open and produced her best Grand Slam season since she last won a major at Wimbledon in 2008. A runner-up to sister Serena at the Australian Open and runner-up to Garbine Muguruza at Wimbledon put an exclamation point on what Williams has been able to accomplish.

Oddly, Stephens and Williams have never met and apparently have communicated little over the years.

“I know she couldn’t walk for a while, but I don’t know the specifics of her injury,” said Williams. “It’s always a lot of work coming back. But she got started right away. Perhaps she appreciates the game even more. I don’t know. We have never talked about that. I’m glad she’s happy and healthy and winning.”

Asked if she had any personal dealings with Williams, Stephens responded: “That’s why personal stories are personal, because you don’t tell people.”

As for their match Thursday night, Stephens takes the middle ground even though she’s traveling the high road. “Making semifinals of a slam is a complete neutralizer,” said Stephens. “Anybody’s game. I just have to focus on myself and, yeah, that’s all I can really do.”

New York Sports