NEW YORK, NY, USA -- The Summer of Sloane has led to new heights.
Sloane Stephens outlasted No.9 seed Venus Williams, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5, in an incredible, topsy-turvy all-American barnburner on Thursday night. Stephens advances to the US Open final -- the first Grand Slam final of her career.
"I'm super happy to be in a Grand Slam final," Stephens said, in her post-match press conference. "To do it here, obviously, my home slam, is obviously more special. I think this is what every player dreams about."
Stephens had won their only prior meeting: a straight-sets encounter in the first round of the 2015 French Open. This was much more intense and protracted, but in the end, Stephens got another win over the seven-time Grand Slam champion, who was denied her third major final of the year.
"Fortunately but unfortunately, I had to play Venus," continued Stephens, "but having four Americans in the semifinals, I think that says a lot about American tennis and where we are right now. 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."
The match featured wild momentum shifts which lasted entire sets, as evidenced by the scoreline. The first set was a blowout by Stephens, as Williams came out tight and was misfiring on her groundstrokes. Stephens stayed speedy and consistent, as is her wont. But a shocking 17 unforced errors by Williams in the first set, compared to only five winners, told the tale.
A Williams forehand unforced error into the net gave Stephens the first break of the first set for 3-1, and a double fault down break point gave the 24-year-old a second break for a 5-1 lead. When a solid serve by Stephens was returned long by Williams, the 6-1 set had ended in 24 minutes, and it appeared that Stephens would roll to victory.
Nothing could be further from the case.
Williams cruised through the second set 6-0, ramping up the velocity of her groundstrokes, winning 77 percent of the points on her first serve, and staving off three break points in the first game of the set when the match could have easily slipped away.
While Williams hit 11 winners and only 8 unforced errors in the second set, Stephens lost her effectiveness off the ground, hitting 10 unforced errors, double that of her winners. A double fault down break point gave Williams the immediate 2-0 lead, and in half an hour she had lost serve two more times, and the match was dead even.
"Venus, she's an amazing competitor and she's been here many times before," Stephens said. "She wasn't going to just give it to me. I think she really stepped up her game in the second set."
"I tried just not to get too down on myself," she continued. "I knew obviously in the third set I would have to fight my tail off and get my racquet on every ball."
Neither of the previous sets could have prepared anyone for the battle royale to follow. In the previous round, both players had survived two-and-a-half-hour matches with final-set tiebreaks against top opponents: Stephens over No.16 seed Anastasija Sevastova, and Williams over No.13 seed Petra Kvitova. This nearly occurred again.
Stephens took the first break of the final set when she hit a sizzling backhand at Williams' feet which the 37-year-old legend could not return over the net. Stephens then held for 2-0, saving break points in a game which featured extravagant court coverage by both players.
Any suspicion that Stephens might run out a set like the previous two was quickly dispelled when her unforced errors, particularly off her backhand, made more frequent appearances, and Williams knotted the set and match up at 2-2. Both players then saved break points to hold serve in the next two games, as the final set appeared to provide more opportunities against serve.
This proved to be the case when Stephens clinched a break lead for 4-3, and quickly ceded it back for 4-4. By now, both players were fighting equally hard and playing at an equivalent level, which led to scintillating rallies and points which ended creatively and breathtakingly.
Stephens started to look the fresher and more creative of the two, and she held for 5-5, partially due to an outrageous backhand winner at the end of a grueling rally at 5-4, 30-30. "That was good, huh?" she joked to the press, when they asked her about that pivotal shot.
The first point of the 5-5 game was also startling, as an all-court rally was completed with a perfect lob which Williams could not contend with. This led to a break at love, and Stephens would serve for the match.
"I hit that lob thingy. I don't know what that was. That was great," admitted Stephens. "I think that really gave me some momentum and really pumped me up. Those were the type of opportunities I was talking about, like, when you get your chance, you've really just got to take it and make the most of it."
Stephens held her nerve, and stared down the two-time US Open champion in the final game. She stayed consistent while Williams' shots could not find their mark, and after a final forehand unforced error, it was Stephens who would be playing in her very first Grand Slam championship match.
In the final, Stephens will take on No.15 seed Madison Keys, who eliminated her compatriot No.20 CoCo Vandeweghe, 6-1, 6-2. "I have known her for a long time," Stephens said about Keys. "She's probably one of my closest friends on tour. Love her to death."
Win or lose against her dear friend, Stephens has already shown that she's, in her own words, "a real fighter, that I have a lot of grit." Now in her first major final, she has completely resurged from her foot injury which kept her off the tour for nearly a year, and caused her ranking to plummet out of the Top 900.
"A lot of things have happened," said Stephens, as she reflected upon her journey. "I'm just happy to be playing. Happy to be competing. Happy to be in this position. Now no one can ever take away -- like, whether I win the tournament or not, like, I'm a Grand Slam finalist, and no one will ever be able to take that away from me."