Sloane Stephens finally made it to the final of the U.S. Open. According to the New York Times the four women wore pink, green, black and gray, and they swatted yellow balls, but the theme inside Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday was decidedly red, white and blue.
In front of a home crowd looking to celebrate the pinnacle of domestic women’s tennis, the semifinals featured an all-American quartet that was reduced to a duo on Thursday, after Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys advanced to an improbable United States Open final.
It began with the unseeded Sloane Stephens, who was ranked 934th on the women’s tour less than two months ago, barging her way in with an impressive demonstration of nerve and desire and ousting the two-time champion Venus Williams, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5, in the first semifinal.
In the second, No. 15-seeded Madison Keys played near-flawless tennis to overpower No. 20 CoCo Vandeweghe, 6-1, 6-2, setting up the first U.S. Open final between two American women since Serena Williams beat Venus Williams in 2002.
It will be the first all-American U.S. Open final not involving one of the Williams sisters since Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert in 1984. It will also be a matchup of old pals playing in their first Grand Slam final.
“She’s one of my closest friends on tour,” said Stephens, 24. “It’s obviously going to be tough. It’s not easy playing a friend.”
Back in January, when Keys was recovering from the first of two wrist surgeries and Sloane Stephens was immobilized on her couch after surgery to repair a fracture in her left foot, the two players lamented their plights as they texted back and forth.
“I was actually just laughing and thinking, ‘Who would have thought in Australia that Sloane Stephens and I would be the finalists at the U.S. Open?’” Keys said. “I definitely never envisioned it happening this way. But I couldn’t think of a better person to have this first experience with.”
Until now, the high-point of Stephens’s career was a semifinal at the 2013 Australian Open, after beating Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. She also made it to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon the same year, losing to eventual champion Marion Bartoli.
Since then, she had not advanced past the fourth round in a major tournament, but there were signs a breakout was coming. After recently returning from the foot injury that sidelined her for 11 months, she made the semifinals of two tournaments and soared to No. 83 in the rankings in a matter of weeks.
Keys reached the 2015 Australian Open semifinals, but has only made it past the fourth round in a major twice since then. Keys was asked what she learned from that experience in Melbourne two and a half years ago that helped her here.
“Well, the biggest difference was I wasn’t playing Serena Williams this time,” she said with a laugh.
She was playing Vandeweghe, who normally dictates the flow of matches with her aggressive style of play. But on Thursday she was unable to control the match, and found herself in tears during her news conference afterward.
“It’s an amazing experience to be in the semifinal, to be here playing for my country and to know that I worked this hard to get here,” Vandeweghe said. “But it’s a pretty crummy feeling right now.”
Despite the loss, Vandeweghe, 25, has also had a strong year. She reached a semifinal at the Australian Open, a quarterfinal at Wimbledon, and she and Horia Tecau are in the semifinals of the mixed doubles.
“Hopefully I’ll be really happy at the end of this Slam,” she said.
Of the five sets that were played in both matches Thursday, only one was competitive — the third set of the opener. Stephens had to rebound from a demoralizing second set and overcame a late service break in the third to upset Williams, one of her early tennis role models.
The pivotal moment was a 24-stroke point with Williams only two points from winning the match and Stephens serving at 4-5, 30-30. The players pushed one another back and forth across the baseline, trading forehands and backhands until finally, on the 23rd stroke, Williams forced Stephens wide to her backhand side and then sprinted to the net.
Standing flat-footed, Stephens redirected the ball down the line with an all-arms backhand winner, then bent over and pumped her fist.
“That was good, huh?” Stephens said with a smile. “Yeah, and then the next two points and the next game I played incredible.”
When it was over, Williams, 37, walked off the court to a standing ovation from the appreciative fans in Ashe Stadium. Sloane Stephens, too, rose from her chair and applauded the great American champion, who has been an inspiration to many younger players, including the other three semifinalists.
It was a moment of class and respect, but Williams took no satisfaction in the fact that so many players look up to her.
“Well, to be honest, I’m definitely here to win my matches, not for consolations,” said Williams, who was plagued by her own mistakes, especially in the first set. “That definitely sums it up.”
Despite losing, Williams has had a remarkable year, too, reaching two Grand Slam finals: the Australian Open, where she lost to her sister Serena Williams, and Wimbledon, where she lost to Garbiñe Muguruza.
While the influx of younger players has led to talk of a period of transition, Williams said she’s not going anywhere.
“I will continue to play tennis,” she said. “It’s nothing complicated.”
An earlier version of this article misstated Sloane Stephens’s results at major tournaments since reaching the semifinals of the 2013 Australian Open. She advanced past the fourth round once, at Wimbledon in 2013; it is not the case that “she had not advanced past the fourth round in a major tournament” until this year’s U.S. Open.