NEW YORK – Five quick thoughts from Day 11 at the 2017 U.S. Open.
• Tennis fans make plans; the tennis gods laugh. On Wednesday night, Juan Martin del Potro continued his lighting-bolt-hurling and beat Roger Federer, depriving New York fans of the first Federer-Nadal encounter at the U.S. Open. On Thursday night, the fates were at it again. For the first time all tournament, Venus Williams looked her age and, despite a partisan crowd backing a 37-year-old champion, fell to Sloane Stephens in as bizarre and uncomfortable—and yet nonetheless entertaining—a match as you’ll ever see.
For the first 30 minutes, a child coloring outside the lines, Venus could scarcely find the court, losing the first 1-6 and facing a break point to start the second. She regrouped as only she can, winning the second set 6-0 and energized the crowd. A back-and-forth third set reached 5-5 and Venus retreated. In her last service game, she didn't hit a first serve. By the time she committed her 51st unforced error, it was over, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5.
What a terrific year for Williams the Elder. She played deep into three majors and won more Grand Slam singles matches in 2017 than any WTA player. But this loss will sting. With her sister on maternity leave, Venus had a chance to win her first U.S. Open since 2001—think about that one for a second—and become the oldest player ever to reach the No. 1 ranking. Her plans, like so many of her groundstrokes, sadly went awry tonight.
• Barely a month ago, Sloane Stephens was a forgotten woman, a player returning from injury, quietly wondering if she would return to the WTA’s VIP room. She walked off the court after a dismal loss at Wimbledon, grimacing at her play and her movement and her “tennis rust,” the legacies of a left foot injury. And, oh right, she was ranked No. 957.
Since then? She’s been an absolute world-beater. With confidence in her movement and—not un-relatedly—confidence in her strokes, she has won 14 matches in the last five weeks and has now turned in her best result at a Slam. Trite as it sounds, the time off enabled (forced?) Stephens to appreciate her talent, her opportunity and how much she missed the sport. “It’s almost like starting my career over,” she said the other day. Sloane 2.0 is a match away from winning the U.S. Open.
• Madison Keys took the court for the second semifinal knowing that a) an American not named Williams would win a major for the first time in 15 years and b) a win tonight and she would need to beat Sloane Stephens—not seasoned, crowd favorite Venus Williams—to win her first major. And then she played perhaps the best match of her career, especially given the occasion.
She won the first set 6-1, committing just two unforced errors (this from a slobber-knocking baseliner) and losing just three points on serve. She then continued her onslaught in the second set, blending power with control and making Vandeweghe all but irrelevant. After late night matches—filled with drama and disruptive rhythms—Keys has played four straight sets of essentially immaculate tennis. Two more at anything even close to this level and she is the 2017 U.S. Open champion.
• CoCo Vandeweghe leaves with her head high, winning five matches including a composed win over Karolina Pliskova, then the world’s No. 1 player. CoCo Vandeweghe leaves with a career high ranking, into the top 20. CoCo Vandeweghe leaves with still more evidence that she is capable of playing deep into majors. But she also leaves on a bit of a sour note. What a strange Grand Slam season for CoCo. She reached her first major semi in Australia and fought Venus Williams to a third set before retreating. She lost her first match at the French Open and parted ways with her coach, Craig Kardon. She reached the second week of Wimbledon, only to play a vacant match against Magdalena Rybarikova, a player who nearly quit tennis a year earlier. Tonight, she ran into a blazing player but offered little resistance. This was a breakthrough year for Vandeweghe. In 2018, she’ll try and string together seven, not five, exquisite matches.
• As at most events, they play a subsport of tennis that involves four players on a court at once, utilizing alleys, playing at the net. Doubles, they call it. The forgotten cognate of singles, doubles is enjoyed by most recreational players and finds favor with fans—when they’re exposed to it. It’s alternately a pity and a mystery why it isn’t more publicized. For the record, we're down to the last round. In the men’s draw, in an easy match for the chair umpire, the law firm of Lopez and Lopez (Marc and Feliciano—no relation) beat Bob and Mike Bryan in the semis. They’ll face the No. 12 seeds J.J. Rojer and Horia Tecau in the final. We’re down to the final four in the women’s draw. The highest remaining seeds are Martina Hingis and Latisha Chan.
Snapshots from the women's semifinals
Best Moments from the U.S. Open 2017 Women's Semifinals