On Monday, Aryna Sabalenka will make her debut at World No.1. Two days before that, she will play in her first US Open final.
But No.2 seed Sabalenka was forced to come back from the brink of defeat before reaching her first final in New York City, overcoming No.17 seed Madison Keys 0-6, 7-6(1), 7-6[10-5] in their late-night semifinal clash on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Comeback completed: In the unpredictable encounter, Sabalenka was one game away from losing, down 6-0, 5-3, before she turned the match around to take a 3-1 lead in her head-to-head with Keys.
Sabalenka also had to fight back from a break down in the third set before eventually prevailing in a match-tiebreak, finishing off the win after 2 hours and 32 minutes, just before 1:00 a.m. local time.
Sabalenka is just the third woman in the Open Era (since 1968) to win a Grand Slam semifinal after losing the first set 6-0. The other two were Stefanie Graf (vs. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario at 1992 Roland Garros) and Ana Ivanovic (vs. Daniela Hantuchova at the 2008 Australian Open).
Gauff awaits: Reigning Australian Open champion Sabalenka will now have to take down surging Coco Gauff in the final if she wants to win her second Grand Slam title of the year. No.6 seed Gauff defeated No.10 seed Karolina Muchova in the evening’s first semifinal.
Gauff holds a narrow 3-2 edge in their rivalry, but Sabalenka beat Gauff handily in their last match, a 6-4, 6-0 victory in this year’s Indian Wells quarterfinals.
Words from the winner: "It was a really incredible match," Sabalenka said afterwards. "[Keys] played unbelievable tennis. And I'm really proud of myself that I was able to turn around this game and get this win, because it was just incredible.
"I [kept] reminding myself that I lost a lot of tough matches," said Sabalenka, who improved to 2-5 in Grand Slam semifinals. "One day all those matches should just, like, help me somehow.
"This kind of thinking helped me to stay in the game and give me some hope that I'll be able to turn around this match, that the match is not over until the last point, and that I just have to keep fighting, keep trying to find my rhythm, my game, just find myself. Magically I finally found the game, and I was able to turn around this match and to get this win."
Major success continues: Sabalenka continues a breakthrough season at the majors with her second Slam final this year. Sabalenka, who will officially rise to the top of the rankings after the US Open, is also the first player to reach the semifinals of all four Grand Slam events in a single year since Serena Williams in 2016.
The early-morning victory marks Sabalenka’s 50th match-win of the year. It is the first time in her career that Sabalenka has hit that number of tour-level wins in a single season.
Tale of the tape: In the opening set, Keys blasted 12 winners to only five unforced errors. Sabalenka finally got on the scoreboard early in the second set, but Keys still held the momentum, slamming a return winner on the baseline to break for 3-2.
Keys went on to reach 5-3, putting herself a game away from her second US Open final. Keys finished as runner-up to Sloane Stephens in 2017.
But Sabalenka broke back at love for 5-5, and the No.2 seed won 12 points in a row on the way to a 6-5 lead. Keys staved off two set points in that game to line up a second-set tiebreak, but Sabalenka dominated the breaker to tie up the match at one set apiece.
In the third set, Keys went up an early break at 4-2, but Sabalenka immediately broke back, then saved two break points to hold for 4-4. From that point forward, the pair locked down their service games, as they cruised towards the decisive 10-point match-tiebreak.
In the final stretch, Sabalenka took control quickly, blasting a forehand winner to lead 4-0. After another forehand winner for 6-3, Sabalenka won the next point and erroneously celebrated a win -- she still had three more points to go in the elongated tiebreak which settles final sets at Grand Slam events.
But Sabalenka did not come unglued, firing a volley winner for 9-3 and six match points. Keys saved two, but the incoming World No.1 converted her third chance and claimed a spot in her second major final.