Sloane steady, can she win the title?
Stephens goes from needing crutches to reaching US Open final in five months
Sloane Stephens watched January's Australian Open from her couch, a large cast on her left foot rendering her immobile and raising doubt in her mind about her ability to bounce back from the injury.
At the US Open yesterday morning (Singapore time), those questions were answered as the 24-year-old hustled after every ball to defeat ninth seed Venus Williams 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 to reach her first Grand Slam final.
"I knew that it was going to be tough," she said about coming back from her 11-month absence.
"I knew I was going to have to play my way into shape and I think I've done that pretty well," said Stephens, who was still on crutches as recently as April and was in a walking boot a month before Wimbledon.
"I think my movement is probably what's kind of kept me in some of these matches, shockingly."
The semi-final win guarantees Stephens, who was ranked 957th at the end of July, will rocket up the WTA rankings at the end of the tournament.
She will move to 22nd if she loses, and possibly as high as 15th if she defeats compatriot Madison Keys to win the title.
Either way, a new champion will be born.
Footwork will be critical if she is to get past offensive-minded Keys, a good friend whom she describes as an aggressive, "first-strike" tennis player.
If someone had told me when I started my comeback that I would make two semi-finals and a Grand Slam final, I would have passed out. Sloane Stephens, who was out for 11 months after undergoing foot surgery and returned to the Tour only in July
"Obviously, when you get in positions like this and you get nervous and tight, for me personally, I focus on my feet," she said. "Just keep them moving at all times and I will be okay."
It will be the first time two American women have played for the title since 2002 when Venus lost 6-4, 6-3 to her younger sister Serena Williams.
Keys, who had crushed CoCo Vandeweghe 6-1, 6-2 in the other semi-final, said: "It feels amazing, these are moments growing up you dream about.
"It was one of those days where I came out and I was in a zone and forced myself to stay there. I had to rise to the occasion and I'm just happy to be in the final.
"Sloane is a new person right now, I think she is loving being out on the court again and she's obviously playing really well."
Keys, who was absent from the first two months recovering from wrist surgery, needed just 66 minutes to beat Vandeweghe, who had also lost in the Australian Open semi-finals.
Keys never faced a breakpoint and committed just nine unforced errors while firing 25 winners.
"She was playing a great first set," said an emotional Vandeweghe, breaking into tears during her post-match media conference.
"I thought at some point she might start running a little bit colder than what she was doing. I mean, it's really not over until the last point.
"I was fighting as hard as I could for as long as I could, but she stayed hot the whole time."
Keys came out swinging against the fellow power-hitter and broke Vandeweghe twice as she stormed into a 5-0 lead in a one-sided opening set that took only 23 minutes.
Keys continued to hammer away in the second set and the 22-year-old broke in the third game to ensure her momentum continued.
The only alarming moment came when Keys called for a medical time-out while leading 6-1, 4-1 and she walked off the Arthur Ashe Stadium court for treatment.
The 15th seed returned with her right thigh heavily taped but it did not affect her dominance as she held serve and finished off a shell-shocked Vandeweghe in her next service game with an ace on the first match-point. - WIRE SERVICES