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US Open - Venus Williams vs Sloane Stephens preview: Can Venus reach final for first time since 2002?

Hannah Wilks in Tennis 7 Sep 2017

Venus Williams faces Sloane Stephens tonight in an all-American semi-final at the US Open.

After conquering Petra Kvitova in a brilliant three-set duel to make the US Open semifinals, Venus faces off with the unseeded Stephens as she tries to make her third Grand Slam final of a quietly sensational reason.

While this US Open has been dominated by comeback stories, some of them extremely unlikely and inspiring – Kvitova herself, Kaia Kanepi, Madison Keys and Stephens among them – Venus Williams’s return to the top of the game has been gradual, less dramatic and often overshadowed by sister Serena’s extraordinary accomplishments and the hunt for new stars. Despite the autoimmune disease Sjogren’s Syndrome, other injury issues and a barren period of four years from 2011-14 when she didn’t reach a single Grand Slam quarterfinal, Williams has gradually, step by step, built up her career and ranking again, making multiple major quarterfinals for the first time in five years in 2015, reaching the Wimbledon semifinals in 2016 and breaking back into the top 10. And in 2017, she’s really gone after a major title like she plans to win one, peaking for the Slams (her best result outside the four majors was a semifinal in Miami).

After a not particularly impressive but generally energy-saving first week, Williams’s win over Kvitova in the quarterfinals really exemplified the player she’s become in 2017. Facing a player who has always been tough for her in the past – all of their matches have gone to three sets and the past three to 12 games in the decider – Williams didn’t make the mistake of trying to match Kvitova blow for blow; she concentrated on keeping her game as error-free as possible, finding her range and reeling off 20 of the last 25 points to take the first set. Kvitova came back in the second, but Williams concentrated on recovering the early break in the third set before really turning up the power and aggression from the middle of the decider onwards. Her savvy in having left herself room to raise her level when needed did the job and she was the cleaner player in the third-set tie break, edging Kvitova 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(2) to make her first semifinal since 2010 in New York.

"She's a champion," Kvitova said afterwards.

"I think those are the words which describe everything."

With the exit of Karolina Pliskova on Wednesday, Williams is now the only woman who has made a Grand Slam final left in the draw and this is probably her best chance yet to seize an eighth major title. But there are still two matches to be played. Both could be against fellow Americans, whose entire presence in the game can be attributed at least partly to the trail Williams blazed; the first certainly will be, as Williams takes on Sloane Stephens on Thursday.

Sloane Stephens  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
If Williams’s recent story has been all about getting herself ready to win this title, Stephens’s presence in the semifinals is a surprise, even to the woman herself. A teenage sensation when she made the Australian Open semifinals in 2013, Stephens quickly became tagged as a disappointing underachiever but appeared to be really raising her game in early 2016 when she won a trio of titles in Auckland, Acapulco and Charleston, only to be struck down by an ankle injury. Her last match for 2016 was played at the Rio Olympics in August and she was completely out of action for eleven months before playing her first match of 2017 just a few weeks ago at Wimbledon, where she lost in the first round. Her ranking having dropped to world no. 957, Stephens lost to Simona Halep in three sets at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. and commented dryly that she knew she would eventually beat someone, somewhere.

Since then, Stephens is 13-2, has made three semifinals, won four matches against top-15 players (a career-best record in one season for her achieved in the space of five weeks) and is into her second Grand Slam semifinal. She will be back into the top 40 at least after this tournament. 

Stephens has always been capable of generating effortless power, but her footwork has always been wanting and her ability to construct points has been questionable, preferring to rely – generally to the detriment of her results – on striking an unlikely clean winner based on pure athleticism from behind the baseline instead of pressing in. That has been much improved over the past few weeks, although she forgot how to do it for large stretches of her quarterfinal against Anastasija Sevastova due to nerves – a worrying sign for her chances in the semifinals – but the biggest difference has been that Stephens isn’t descending into downwards spirals of negativity when she makes errors. There have been absolutely clusters of errors and opportunities squandered in her matches so far at the US Open, but she has always rebounded. Against Sevastova, she frequently struggled with maintaining her game plan and focus in the face of the Latvian’s craft and guile, but she stuck to her guns and hit with greater conviction for a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(4) victory.

Stephens certainly feels like she has nothing to lose at the moment, and it’s evident – although there were definite signs of the occasion starting to get to her in that quarterfinal.

‘If someone would have told me when I started at Wimbledon that I'd be in three semifinals back to back, I would have said they're crazy. Just happy to be playing really well and happy that my foot is good and I don't have any pain and my body is holding up,’ Stephens said.

Williams and Stephens have only played once before, and it was the younger woman who won – a 7-6(5), 6-1 victory for Stephens at the 2015 French Open. I don’t read too much into that – Williams went 2-3 on clay that year, and it’s distinctly her least favourite surface. While I think Stephens has been playing fantastic tennis in recent weeks, I also think she’s going to come up wanting on Thursday against an opponent who is miles ahead of her in point construction and savvy, but can still match her for power. Venus Williams is headed to her first US Open final for 15 years. 

Williams vs Stephens is scheduled on Arthur Ashe Stadium at 7pm local/12am BST.


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US Open - Venus Williams vs Sloane Stephens preview: Can Venus reach final for first time since 2002?

Venus Williams faces Sloane Stephens tonight in an all-American semi-final at the US Open.

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