NEW YORK – Sloane Stephens is into her first major final, defeating No. 9-seed Venus Williams 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 in two hours and seven minutes in the U.S. Open semifinals on Thursday.
Fans were barely arriving to their seats with hot dogs and Honey Deuces when Stephens jumped out to a quick lead and grabbed a stranglehold on the opening set. Stephens stunned Williams—and the Arthur Ashe crowd—by winning the opening set after just 24 minutes in squeaky-clean fashion. Williams finished the first set with five winners and 15 unforced errors, as she seemed to be going for too much too early on her shots, while Stephens’ hit six winners to just five unforced errors to open the match. But then Williams proved why she is a seven-time Grand Slam champion.
The opening game of the second set was a 10-minute duel between the two American women. While Williams appeared to start out of the match with some nerves, the roles reversed in the lengthy first game, as Stephens missed two easy forehands—a telltale sign that the 24-year-old was feeling edgy after realizing she was within one set of her first Grand Slam final. Williams toughed out a long hold for 1-0 to open the second set and it proved to be the game that would steady the ship. Picking up the intensity and finding her shots, Williams went on to win the second set comfortably 6-0.
After just 54 total minutes on court, the match had echoes of a certain men’s fourth round match on Monday night, where Dominic Thiem absolutely played Juan Martin del Potro off the court for two sets, before the Argentine began his roaring comeback in the third set. The match also had echoes of a different kind, as Arthur Ashe Stadium reverberated with a bizarre hush from a crowd unsure of what they were watching.
But that all changed in the third set. The two women saved their biggest weapons for the deciding set of battle, doing away with some of the apprehension that plagued both in the beginning and finding the form and ferocity that got them both into the U.S. Open semifinals. Under the Arthur Ashe lights, the people in the stands began to raise their level, too.
After 30 minutes—half the time it took for the two sets to be completed—Williams and Stephens were locked in at 2-2. The tug-of-war continued for the duration of the set, until a pivotal moment in the ninth game. At 4-4, Stephens had a break point and Williams hit a ball long. But Williams challenged the call and a Hawk-Eye review showed the ball clipped the line, bringing up deuce. Instead of serving for a spot in the final, Stephens found herself serving to stay in the match, but she stuck in, hitting a backhand winner down the line—a contender for shot of the tournament?—to level the set at 5-all.
The shots kept coming after that. Stephens went on to hold at love for 6-5 and served her way into the championship match, winning the final set 7-5. She finished the match with 17 winners and 27 unforced errors, to Williams's 28 winners and 51 unforced errors.
"I have no words," Stephens said in a post-match interview of her performance. "I don't know how I got here. Just hard work—that's it."
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