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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday, September 7, 2017

 
Sloane Stephens

Empowered by speed and grit, Sloane Stephens won the final three games fighting past 37-year-old Venus Williams, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5, into her first career US Open final.

Photo credit: US Open Facebook

An all-American US Open semifinal escalated into a red, white and bruising affair in a gripping final set.

Empowered by speed and grit, Sloane Stephens fought through the finish line.

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Two points from defeat in the decider, Stephens burst through the final three games battling by Venus Williams, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5, into her first career US Open final.

“It just required a lot of fight, a lot of grit,” Stephens told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi afterward. “I knew if I just stayed with it and hung tough and played my game as best as I could I would have my opportunities. I just worked my tail off ran down every ball and just tried to get my racquet on ever ball and here we are.”

The 83rd-ranked Stephens will face 15th-seeded Madison Keys in the first all-American women's US Open final since 2002 when Serena Williams defeated big sister Venus Williams. It's the first all-American US Open final without Venus or Serena since 1984.



Keys crushed 20th-seeded CoCo Vandeweghe, 6-1, 6-2, powering into her first major final with her third victory over Vandeweghe in the last 33 days. 

In their lone prior meeting, Stephens swept Keys, 6-4, 6-2, in the 2015 Miami tournament.

"Sloane is a new person right now," Keys said in her on-court interview. "I think she’s really loving being on the court again. She’s obviously playing really well. I’m really excited we get to play each other in the US Open final. It’s pretty cool to say."

The final burst past the 37-year-old icon is a major leap forward on a remarkable run for Stephens.

Sidelined for 11 months after undergoing foot surgery, Stephens’ launched her comeback just two months ago at Wimbledon where she fell to Alison Riske in the first round.

Ranked No. 957 five weeks ago, the red-hot woman in pink has stormed to two semifinals and her first major final winning 14 of her last 16 matches.

Most importantly, Stephens has shown the fierce competitive spirit and fiery desire that was lacking earlier in her career. A resilient Stephens raised her three-set record to 8-0 in 2017.

"I knew obviously playing Venus I knew I was gonna have to fight for it," Stephens said. "I didn’t start running until May. The only thing I really had left was fight. That’s what I counted on."

Twenty years after she tore through the draw to the US Open final in her Flushing Meadows debut, Williams battled bravely through a topsy-turvy match and put herself in position to reach her third Grand Slam final of the season, but cold not close against an opponent who would not miss.

Counter-puncher Stephens played cleaner tennis committing 24 fewer unforced errors than the ninth seed forcing Williams to hit an extra shot.  

"She played well," Williams said. "I mean, there was nothing I could do about those shots. Like I said, I played aggressively, and, you know, played the best point I could, and then she played a little better. Sometimes you get the luck and sometimes you don't."

In her opening service game, Williams rallied from love-30 down cranking two aces in the next four points to level, but dissolved in nerves dropping five straight games after that.

The seventh woman ranked outside the Top 50 to reach the US Open semifinals, Stephens was bouncing on her toes and moving well working through a deuce hold in the third game.

Struggling to find her range, Williams wasn’t elevating her shots. A cluster of unforced errors, including a flat forehand into net, gifted Stephens the break and a 3-1 lead.

Dialed in from the baseline, Stephens struck with more topspin holding for 4-1 after 18 minutes as Williams’ unforced error output crept to 13.

Nerves were evident in Williams’ stray service toss she chased. Wacking a double fault beyond the service box, Williams coughed up a second straight break. By then, she’d won just one of five second serve points.




Dancing forward, the world No. 83 drilled a forehand crosscourt for triple set point.

Stephens slid a serve winner down the middle sealing the 24-minute opener on a five-game surge.

Contesting her ninth career US Open semifinal, a strained Williams looked weary and tense committing 17 unforced errors during the first-set free-fall.

Recalibrating, Williams saved two break points only to see Stephens steer a backhand pass crosscourt for a third break point. Stepping into the court, the two-time champion cracked a forehand winner down the line to save it.



After a sloppy start, a calmer Williams settled down, put more air on her shots and began striking with more conviction.

Forced into defensive positions, Stephens clanked couple of mis-hits and her second double fault donating the break and a 2-0 lead to the veteran.

Timing the ball beautifully, Williams knifed a backhand volley winner breaking again for 4-0 lead. In a complete role-reversal from the first set, Williams powered through 16 of 18 points imposing a 5-0 lead.

When a skittish Stephens stuck a forehand into net, Williams wrapped her first bagel set of the tournament forcing a decider after 54 minutes.




Shaking off a second-set collapse, Stephens dipped a pass at the veteran’s feet breaking to open the decider.

Moving up quickly to a mid-court forehand, Williams was in prime position for a forehand but pasted it into net. That crucial missed helped Stephens dodge a second break point, confirming the break for 2-0.

The physicality of baseline exchanges intensified leaving both women looking drained at times. On her fourth break point, Williams banged out the break to level 2-all.

Cracking a forehand into the corner, Williams gained double break point but pushed a volley wide on the second break point. Stephens slide an ace down the middle standing strong to draw even at 3-all.




Tremendous court coverage earned Stephens a second break in the seventh game when she lashed a backhand down the line that a lunging Williams could not control.

Nose-to-nose at net, Stephens blinked. Trying to drive a backhand right at her opponent, Stephens found the top of the tape instead to face break point. Williams punished a 62 mph serve breaking back for 4-all. Under pressure on every service game of the set, the two-time champion stuck a drive off the baseline saving break point to spark a hold in the ninth game.

A brilliant backhand pass down the line punctuated by an invigorated fist pump helped Stephens hold for 5-5.




Quick off the mark, Stephens used her speed to create the decisive break. Scraping a lob winner, she flicked a running forehand pass then coaxed successive errors breaking for 6-5.

Stephens served out a two hour, seven-minute triumph at 15 thrusting her arms in the air and wearing the expansive smile of a first-time major finalist in her 23rd career Grand Slam tournament.

In a touch of class, Stephens stood right with the capacity crowd applauding the seven-time Grand Slam champion as she departed the court.

Williams showed the world she may well have another major left in her, while Stephens, who was on crutches as recently as April, took one more step toward her major break through.


 

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