Stephens outlasts Venus to reach US Open final

American Sloane Stephens overcame Venus Williams 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 at the US Open to advance to her first Grand Slam final.

Stephens, whose best prior Slam run was to the 2013 Australian Open semifinals, will play US compatriot Madison Keys on Saturday for a top prize of $3.7 million.   -  Getty Images

Within minutes of her 1-6, 6-0, 5-7 loss to Sloane Stephens in the semifinal of the US Open, Venus Williams was in the interview room defending a barrage of questions from journalists. She was in so quick that some reporters had barely managed to reach the press conference room from the stadium.

When prodded to make a heavy, significant statement regarding the future, Williams seemed rather impatient. “I’ll continue to play tennis,” she shrugged. “It’s nothing complicated.” As if it has always been such a simple fact of life for her — playing the game of tennis.

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She wins. She loses. This year, it was mostly the former. Out of 33 match victories, 19 were from the four majors. And at 37, 20 years after making her breakthrough on the same stage, she looks nowhere nearly done yet. Just done for this US Open. Just done for now.

Williams was outplayed on Thursday in a crucial final game by Stephens, who until four weeks back was ranked 957. Stephens had missed the last 11 months recovering from a stress fracture. On court, she looked anything but that, equalling William’s power during tight points and being amazingly flexible when playing defensive. 

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Venus Williams hits a return to Sloane Stephens during their semifinal match at the US Open.   -  AFP

It seemed the sun had set early on the beloved champion’s run at this year’s tournament when Stephens charged out, taking the first set 6-1 in just 24 minutes. Williams appeared to be constantly edgy and nervous — she committed 17 unforced errors and won only 50 % on her first serve.

But if Stephens thought she could carry the momentum into the second set, what she got was a sound schooling in spirit and mental fortitude from the veteran. It was as if someone tilted the court — Williams was the one who had found the intensity and picked up her shots, Stephens was feeling the pressure of the home-run stretch, ultimately surrendering 0-6.  

The see-sawing stopped in the third set and a hush fell over the crowd at Arthur Ashe as they watched two fierce women battle it out for 74 minutes, neither one willing to blink. The third set saw four service breaks — Williams handed it over right at beginning, but broke back to level at 2-2. Stephens broke back in the seventh, only for Williams to equalise at 4-4. It was a set that witnessed a marathon of baseline rallies, with both players showing supreme athleticism, running from side to side, lunging and picking up shots that looked like sure-shot winners. The audience, now unsure of who to root for, had turned breathless. On their clip-on earpiece, they listened to Chris Evert quip, “What was going to win? The fearlessness of youth or the experience of the elder?” 

At 5-5, Stephens stepped up for what was perhaps the most crucial game in the match and broke with a series of beautiful points that had the crowd leap out of their seats. She coaxed a sly backhand past Williams at net, sent a dazzling cross-court winner and with a little help from a double fault, broke to lead 6-5 and served out the match. 

For the first time since Jennifer Capriati in 2002, the Grand Slam champion from the United States will not be named Williams. Stephens will play in Saturday’s final against one of her favourite people, fellow American youngster Madison Keys, who had an easy time in her semifinal — a 6-1, 6-2 victory over CoCo Vandeweghe, also from the U.S.. Both Stephens and Keys are making their Grand Slam final debuts — what could be the first of many.