Sloane Stephens first had to surprise a pale imitator, and then vanquish the real Venus Williams in a US Open semi-final boilover at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Stephens, the comeback kid of US women's tennis following an 11-month injury lay-off, beat the former champion 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 to seal a spot in a first-ever appearance at the decider at Flushing Meadows, where she will face compatriot Madison Keys.
Caught flat-footed in the first set, Williams rocked back into contention with a relentless bagel in the second, seemingly shifting momentum her way.
But Stephens — often having to play defensively against a relentless physical exhibition of power from Williams — held firm to secure her first-ever appearance at the US Open final.
Having taken turns to bully their opponent in the first two sets — showing why both deserved a shot at the title on Sunday (AEST) — it came down to the third, deciding set, in which a mad scramble would decide progression to the final.
Stephens capitalised on the break, making it 2-0 after holding firm in an incredible 23-shot baseline rally as Williams fired wide. But Williams was not to be outdone, holding serve amid a brutal tussle for supremacy before breaking Stephens' serve emphatically to level the deciding set at 2-2.
Williams who showed terrific court movement to win crucial points at the net, before shrugging off a double-fault to hold serve and lead 3-2. In another rally which showcased brutal groundstrokes, Williams won a 16-shot rally with a stinging forehand drive down the line to sit on the verge of breaking Stephens.
Stephens, however, rallied back from two break points down to level the game at deuce before holding strong for 3-3. The more Stephens would ratchet up the pressure, the more Williams seemed to respond, defending a break point with some power serving. But on the verge of winning her service game, the veteran would falter as Stephens' quick court coverage forced another unforced error from Williams.
Stephens had the break in another breathless rally, holding off a Williams smash with a defensive lob — landing on the baseline — before outlasting Williams to threaten a break again. Williams would defend the break yet again, only for Stephens to hold firm in the following rally. Sensing Williams approaching the net, Stephens hammered a backhand low and hard, down the line, to overcome the attempted volley and securing the break.
Was that the crucial point? Williams was not having any of it, forcing Stephens into two errors on serve to level the ledger at 4-4.
And yet the tide would turn further still. A Williams double fault would negate what pressure the senior player had built up, hitting long in the following rally to set up another break point. Williams would level it at deuce with a clutch shot landing on the baseline, called in following a nail-biting review. Up 5-4, Stephens faced mounting pressure on her serve to hang on. Another marathon rally ensued, 25 shots of baseline slugging mixed with slower slices, setting up a delicious down-the-line winner for Stephens. She held her serve, for 5-5.
Williams piled on the pressure again, and somehow Stephens found a way. The defensive lob came out again to delirious effect, finding the baseline to deflate Williams, before another winner followed with a deft finish at the net.
The buzz had finally left Williams, hitting long as Stephens broke to love. Williams would conjure up one last bit of magic at the net, but the winner was for a lost cause as Stephens held serve to win a classic, prompting a standing ovation from the Arthur Ashe crowd.
Keys was all over her opponent from the get-go, serving down five aces and notching 25 winners to Vandeweghe's nine. Stephens and Keys have only met once before on court, with Stephens winning in an early round in Miami in 2015.
Source: ABC News