WASHINGTON, September 9, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
“An Upset and a Rout Produce Two First-Time Grand Slam Finalists” read Friday morning’s banner Sports headline in my home-delivered copy of The New York Times. It kind of summed up things very succinctly about Thursday night’s U.S. Open women’s semifinals. First, Sloane Stephens, who was unseeded and just four and a half weeks ago was ranked 934th, wore down the No. 9 seed Venus Williams, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5, by making critical shots when they counted most. Then, a near flawless No. 15 seed, Madison Keys, overpowered fellow American, CoCo Vandeweghe, seeded No. 20, 6-1, 6-2, in the other semifinal. While the third set – alone – of the Stephens-Williams epic lasted 73 minutes, it took Keys just 66 minutes to play out her entire match and advance to the final.
How improbable is it to think that Stephens, who is just three months removed from wearing a protective boot after surgery to repair a stress fracture to her right foot, is a perfect eight for eight in three-set matches and would pick this grand slam fortnight to start a six-match winning streak? Throughout her match against the favored Williams, Stephens showed so much nerve and played such great defense in chasing down ball after ball that against any another opponent, it might have resulted in lots of points for Williams. One thing was certain, though: There was no mistaking the 24-year-old Stephens’ desire to win.
After the match, Stephens was asked during an on-court interview with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi, to describe why she won. “I have no words to describe what I’m feeling, what it took to get there,” she said. “It’s just a journey. I have no words. When I started my comeback, if someone told me I’d make two Grand Slam semis and a final, I would probably have passed out.
“It required a lot of fight and a lot of grit. I just worked my tail off and ran down every ball.”
Meanwhile, the 22-year-old Keys reflected on her amazing win over Vandeweghe – it was her third consecutive summer victory over CoCo – during her post-match press conference. “These are the moments growing up that you dream about, and you know, to be sitting here as a U.S. Open finalist, it feels really amazing,” she said.
“I played really, really well. It was kind of one of those days where I came out and I was kind of in a zone, and I just kind of forced myself to stay there. I knew I was going to have to play really well in order to beat her, and you know, I feel like once things started going, it just kind of fell into place.”
On Saturday, when close friends Stephens and Keys meet in the women’s final in Arthur Ashe Stadium (4 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time, 8 p.m. GMT, 10 p.m. CET), it will produce a first-time Grand Slam champion. Stephens, who is playing in her 23rd major, is the 14th unseeded player to advance to a Grand Slam final in the Open era and only the fourth at the U.S. Open.
Much has been publicized by the U.S. print and broadcast media about the sudden resurgence in the American women at this U.S. Open, whose last name isn’t Williams, and how it produced a pair of all-American semifinal matches. Now, that we’ve reached the stage of an all-American U.S. Open final, it’s the first involving two American women since Serena Williams beat sister Venus Williams, in 2002. And, it’s the first not involving one of the Williams sisters since Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert in 1984.
Of greater importance, I believe, is this: It’s worth noting that on the 60th anniversary of Althea Gibson’s historic U.S. Open victory, it will be two African-American women who will walk onto Arthur Ashe Stadium to play in the U.S. Open final. While neither of them is named Venus Williams, the 37-year-old, two-time U.S. Open champion will be on the minds of both players.
“I don’t think there is any other word to describe it than ‘amazing’ for me and Maddie,” said Stephens. “We are following in Venus’ footsteps. She’s been here. She’s represented the game so well as an African-American woman. Maddie and I are here to join her and represent just as well as she has in the past.”
About the author:
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.