Stephens, who has jumped more than 900 positions in the world rankings in a month, on Thursday reached her first major final, defeating No. 9 Venus Williams 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 at the US Open at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, New York.
“I have no words to describe what I’m feeling, what it took to get here, just the journey I’ve been on,” Stephens said on court after the win. “I have no words.”
Her next opponent is No. 15 seed Madison Keys, who defeated No. 20 CoCo Vandeweghe in what turned out to be a thoroughly one-sided semifinal that lasted 66 minutes, 6-1, 6-2. It also will be Keys’ first major final.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” the 22-year-old Keys said. “I’m still shaking.”
This year marked the first time four American women reached the semifinals at the US Open since 1981, when Tracy Austin, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Barbara Potter did it. The last time it happened in a major was at Wimbledon in 1985 (Evert, Zina Garrison, Navratilova and Kathy Rinaldi).
It’s the first all-American US Open final since 2002, when Serena Williams defeated Venus Williams. Stephens and Keys have played each other just once, with Stephens winning that match.
Stephens’ long road back
Stephens, who was sidelined for 11 months following a foot injury and surgery, made her comeback at Wimbledon and entered this summer’s US Open Series ranked 957th. But she’s been on a tear in the North American events, reaching the semifinals in Toronto and Cincinnati. Heading into Thursday’s semifinal, Stephens had won 13 of her last 15 matches.
Stephens, 24, entered the US Open at No. 83 in the rankings. By reaching the final, she is projected to rise to No. 22. She’s the fourth unseeded player to advance to a US Open final in the Open Era. Her previous best result in a major was reaching the Australian Open semifinal in 2013.
“When I started my comeback, if someone told me I was going to make two semis and a grand slam final, I just would have probably just passed out because that’s what I’m ready to do now,” Stephens said. “It’s incredible. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how I got here. Just hard work. That’s it.”
Williams, a seven-time major champion, was seeking her first grand slam title since 2008, and she has been achingly close this year. She lost in the Australian Open final to her sister, Serena Williams, and the Wimbledon final to Garbine Muguruza.
At 37, she was trying to become the oldest grand slam singles champion in the Open Era, taking the record from her sister.
When Williams exited the court, Stephens stood up and applauded the champion, who won the US Open in 2000 and 2001.
“I’m honestly just honored to be able to play at the same time as her, one of the greatest to play our game,” Stephens said, who is now 2-0 against Williams.
While Stephens remained steady early, the unforced errors piled on for Williams, finishing the first set with 17. The set took just 24 minutes.
“I just wasn’t playing well,” Williams said. “Those are moments where you have to dig deep and figure out how to get the ball on the court and have a big game. I can’t be tentative and try to figure out how to put that ball in.
“I figured out a lot, but she played great defense. I haven’t played her in a long time. Clearly she’s seen me play many, many times. I haven’t seen her play as much.”
But the script was flipped in the second. After saving three break points in the opening game, Williams’ level of play went up dramatically, with 11 winners and Stephens regressing.
It was a tighter third set, but the unforced errors kept rising for Williams as the two players traded breaks. At 5-5, Sloane hit the gas pedal, scrambling all over the court displaying terrific defense and breaking Williams at love.
Williams finished with 51 unforced errors, to Stephens’ 27.
“It required a lot of fight, a lot of grit,” Stephens said of the final set. “I knew if I just stayed with it and hung tough, played my game as best as I could and didn’t get too down on myself, I would have a few opportunities. That’s just what I did. … I just worked my tail off and ran every ball down and tried to get a racquet on every ball.”
Keys improves to 3-0 against the 25-year-old Vandeweghe, all of which happened this summer. Those first two wins — at Cincinnati and in Stanford, California — were close matches. This one was far from that, as Keys had 25 winners to Vandeweghe’s 22 unforced errors.
“I knew I had to rise to the occasion, and I’m just happy to be in the final,” said Keys, whose previous best major result was reaching the semifinal at the 2015 Australian Open.
While Keys dominated on Thursday, there could be a question about her health. At 4-1 in the second set, she took a medical timeout and left the court. She emerged with heavy wrapping on her right thigh.
Keys said she wanted treatment because she had “started to feel it” and “was afraid something more serious would happen” if she didn’t. However, when she was asked how sound she was heading into Saturday’s final, she answered with a huge smile.
“I feel great right now,” she replied. “I don’t think I could feel better than I do right now.”