Finals Set at U.S. Tennis Open Without a Williams

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Published on September 8 2017 6:09 am
Last Updated on September 8 2017 6:09 am

By ESPN

NEW YORK -- It didn't matter what happened in the second match Thursday night. No matter the winner, the future of American women's tennis would be on full display in Saturday's final, after Sloane Stephens upset Venus Williams 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 and guaranteed the US Open would crown its first American women's champ not named Williams since 1998.

"I have no words to describe what I'm feeling, what it took to get here," Stephens, 24, said after her match. "Making my first Grand Slam final, I think it's a little bit more overwhelming because this is the US Open. This is home. My family is here. I have the most amazing crowd. I have the most amazing support. It just feels different."

Different, she explained, than she thought it might feel like to make the final of a major when she watched her first Grand Slam final on TV as a 12-year-old. That year, Venus Williams defeated Lindsay Davenport in an all-American final at Wimbledon in 2005.

Throughout this tournament, Stephens has talked about her reverence for the elder Williams, an "elegant, graceful competitor" whom Stephens says she's honored to call her contemporary.

A little more than an hour after Stephens' thrilling win over Williams, 22-year-old Madison Keys defeated CoCo Vandeweghe in straight sets to make her first Grand Slam final.

On the 60th anniversary of Althea Gibson's historic US Open victory, two African-American women will walk onto Arthur Ashe Stadium to contest the final at Flushing Meadows. It will be the first all-American final without a Williams sister in New York since Martina Navratilova defeated Chris Evert in 1984.

"I don't think there is any other word to describe it than 'amazing' for me and Maddie," Stephens said. "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."

Throughout the past few years, and especially during the first week of this tournament, tennis pundits have bemoaned the lack of drama in the women's game and the drought that has plagued American tennis.

This non-Williams all-American final is not the Cubs or Red Sox winning the World Series, or Cleveland bringing home an NBA title after a lengthy drought. But it erases the question marks hanging over the heads of the next generation. American women playing in the semis and finals of a Slam is not a fluke. It is not a drill. It is to be expected from here on out.

In some ways, Williams' loss might have been the best outcome for American tennis. Because for the next several days, these young American women are all we will be talking about. It will be five months before another player has an opportunity to win a major, and for the next 365 days, one of these two women will be the defending US Open champion.

This tournament has created fresh rivalries, scripted new storylines and breathed life into a sport that cannot survive forever on the Williams sisters alone.

"I don't want anyone to ever ask me about the state of American tennis ever again," Stephens said in her postmatch news conference. "The proof is in the pudding. So, we don't ever need to discuss the state of American tennis.

"I think we are doing great. Four Americans in the semifinals and a Fed Cup final. ... American women and men have stepped up in an amazing way. I don't think anyone should ever -- at least not for, like, 10 years -- question it."

With her semifinal win, Stephens, who was ranked No. 957 in the world just one month ago, will move up to at least No. 22 in the world and becomes only the fourth unseeded player to make a US Open final. She could become only the second unseeded player to win at Flushing Meadows since Kim Clijsters in 2009.

Keys entered the tournament ranked No. 16 in the world and hot off a win in Stanford last month. She and Stephens have faced each other only once, in the first round of Miami in 2015, and Stephens won in straight sets. But that was before Stephens missed nearly a year because of a foot injury that eventually required surgery. During that time, she re-found her footwork and passion for the game in PT.

"Sloane is a new person right now," Keys said of Stephens after her match. "She's really loving being out on the court again, and she's playing really well."

When asked to give a scouting report on Keys, Stephens reluctantly did so, saying it is tough to break down the game of a close friend, and it will be equally tough to face Keys on Saturday, knowing they are both playing in their first Grand Slam final.

"She plays a lot of first-ball tennis, first-strike tennis. She plays aggressive," Stephens said. "I don't do that. I use my wheels more and make sure I get a lot of balls back and make the other person play. It's obviously going to be tough. It's not easy playing a friend."

No matter which woman wins, it's advantage USA.


Venus Loss Just a Setback, Nothing More

Venus Williams either didn't understand the question or didn't like it.

Moments after losing to Sloane Stephens in a three-set semifinal match Thursday at the US Open, Williams was asked about her future.

"What do you mean?" the 37-year-old responded.

When the question was rephrased, Williams simply said, "I don't know. I will continue to play tennis. It's nothing complicated."

It's normal to ask athletes staring at 40 about their future after a difficult defeat. Whether they want to admit it or not, they are in the twilight of their careers when their next loss could easily be their last.

But despite her age, it makes sense for Williams to be taken aback by a question about her future given the season she just put together. Williams reached a pair of major finals in the same year for the first time since 2003 (Australian Open and Wimbledon) and is the only woman who has reached the second week in each of the past seven major tournaments.  

Williams had not reached a Grand Slam final since 2009, but has had a renaissance of late; her run actually began at Wimbledon last year when she reached her first major semifinal in six years.

It would have made sense to wonder if Williams would call it a career in late 2011 when she was diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome -- a disease that causes fatigue along with joint and muscle pain -- and later withdrew from a second-round match at the US Open. She also battled a back injury in 2013.

From 2011 to 2014, Williams appeared in 13 majors and was 16-12 with just one second-week appearance and not a single trip to a final. Since 2015, however, Williams has been in 12 majors and is 42-12 with 10 second-week appearances and two finals appearances.

Sure she's 37, but this is the best Williams has played in nearly a decade.

Williams nearly reached her third major final this season, which she hadn't done since 2002, but ultimately fell to the 24-year-old Stephens, in a back-and-forth match that had the capacity crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium on its feet several times.

At this year's Wimbledon, Williams became the only woman other than Martina Navratilova in 1994 to reach a major final at 37 or older. If that's not enough, here are a few more achievements from this season:

One of only three women, along with Navratilova and Billie Jean King, to rank in the top 10 at 37.

Defeated top-ranked Angelique Kerber in Miami, making her the oldest player in WTA history to defeat a No. 1.

Became the third-oldest player in WTA history to rank in the top 10, behind King and Navratilova.

It was hard for Williams to put all that she has accomplished this season in perspective. She has been playing long enough not to be impressed by anything less than trophies.

"Well, to be honest, I'm definitely here to win my matches, not for consolations," Williams said. "For me, it's about putting myself in the position all the time to get the titles, and that's exactly what I did. That's all I could do. So that's the point of being here, is to put yourself in position to win."

Williams has certainly done that during her 20-year career. She has won seven major championships and trails only her sister, Serena, among active players in Slam wins, titles and prize money.

But don't even mention Venus in the retirement rhetoric right now. In fact, if this season has been any indication, she has plenty of more trophies awaiting her down the road.