World #83, American Sloane Stephens, has defeated 16th seed and Maria Sharapova’s conqueror Anastasija Sevastova 6-3 3-6 7-6(4), becoming the first woman to advance into the semifinals of the US Open.
The American clinched a thrilling third-set tiebreak in front of a near-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Stephens got off to a nervy start, with a string of unforced errors handing her opponent a break to love.
The 24-year-old made a swift recovery though, immediately breaking back before racing into a 5-2 lead. As at various points throughout the contest, Stephens simply outmuscled her opponent–the weight of her groundstrokes preventing Sevastova from moving into the forecourt and playing her trademark backhand drop shot.
Stephens was ruthlessly clinical, her rhythm undisturbed by the Latvian’s medical timeout as she closed out the set with the poise and composure fans would have expected from Venus Williams, the 37-year-old seven-time Grand Slam champion on later, rather than the 24-year-old who has only played 12 tour-level matches this year.
But Sevastova had asserted in her pre-match interview that she would be more relaxed going into her second US Open quarterfinal in two years, and in the second set, she delivered with some fearless tennis. The unique slice backhand that so bamboozled Maria Sharapova began to find its full range, varying the pace of baseline exchanges, and sending Stephens scrambling for awkward drop shots. After the flat, orthodox baseline hitting of Dominica Cibulkova and Julia Gorges, Sevastova was posing a wholly different challenge.
Momentum was now with Sevastova, and the Latvian raced into a 3-1 lead in the third set. But where Stephens would have crumbled in previous years, she fought back. Her trademark slicing wide serve came into play, rescuing her from a fatal double break. Sevastova has a record of going hiding against home favourites, with Watson and Bogdan having delivered crushing defeats at Wimbledon and Bucharest, and the roar of the Arthur Ashe crowd soon seemed to take its toll. With a cry of delight, the usually dispassionate Stephens broke to level at three games apiece.
From there, the match was in deadlock, both players trading breaks for 4-4 and then stubbornly refusing to relinquish serve as the tension escalated. It was a high-octane drama befitting of Broadway.
Entering that most theatrical of spectacles, a third-set tiebreak, there was cause for the American crowd to feel anxious. Sevastova had held back-to-back service games to love, and Stephens’ seamless power was slowly dissipating, her groundstrokes becoming loopier, more tentative.
And it seemed as if the prospect of a first major semifinal was going to be too overwhelming for the home hopeful, her early mini-break quickly squandered by consecutive groundstrokes shovelled long. But Stephens’ backhand side in particular began to flourish, producing outstanding depth that drew some tame strokes from her opponent into the net. When, at 6-4, Stephens fired a backhand winner down the line, Arthur Ashe went into pandemonium – an exhalation of relief as much as jubilation. The emotion was raw for Stephens, too.
“I’m getting teary eyed, this is incredible,” Stephens said during her post-match on-court interview. “When I started my comeback before Wimbledon, I could have never even dreamed of having these results in my home Slam, at my favorite tournament. It’s indescribable.”
“I told myself to keep fighting,” Stephens said of her tiebreak strategy. “I’ve just been staying so calm on court all tournament, and I knew that if I stayed with it and kept fighting, I would have an opportunity.”
Stephens’ win tops another incredible story on the WTA tour. She only started hitting balls again in May after foot surgery. On her comeback in June, she said there were ‘no expectations at all.’ She competed in Washington just weeks ago as world #957. Now, after back-to-back semifinal appearances in Toronto and Cincinnati, she stands on the brink of her first Grand Slam final.
Sensational stories: Check out Courtney Nguyen’s Twitter thread detailing the sensational comeback narratives on the women’s side of this year’s US Open.
This #USOpen has some amazing stories. To quote The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, females are strong as hell. 1/
Stephens was one of four American women in the tournament’s quarterfinals. “I’m hoping we can make it four, how awesome would that be?” Stephens said. “I think this is amazing and hope there are four Americans in the semis. It definitely means we’ll have a strong Fed Cup team.”
Flushing Meadows will certainly be waiting with bated breath.
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