After the first set, Sloane Stephens’s U.S. Open semifinal against Venus Williams looked like it was going to be easy. She won smoothly, 6-1, in just 24 minutes. With 17 unforced errors, Williams was all over the place. This looked like it would be over soon.
Holy shit, was it ever not.
The second set was the first inverted, with Venus coming alive and handily taking down Stephens, 6-0. And the third was just about as close as humanly possible, with the two trading games until Stephens was finally able to break Williams to go up 6-5 before taking the set, 7-5. The unseeded Stephens—ranked 83rd in the world after taking months off to deal with a foot injury—is now going to her first Grand Slam final.
After falling behind two games to none in the third, Williams won three in a row to make it 3-2. Then came an intense series of back-and-forth: Williams going up 5-4 after a replay challenge reversed a call that would have allowed Stephens to break her, Stephens taking the next game after a gorgeous backhand winner down the line followed by a forced error on the next point.
With Williams serving and the set tied, 5-5, Stephens stepped up. She broke Williams with a series of beautiful points: a killer backhand past Venus at the net, then an equally dazzling cross-court winner, and then two Williams errors that gave Stephens the game. Serving for the match, she finished things up easily.
Two months ago, Stephens was getting booted from Wimbledon in the first round for her first tournament back from injury. She’s now staring down her first Grand Slam final—but Williams certainly didn’t make it easy for her.