US Open: Sabalenka completes incredible comeback to stun Madison Keys and reach the US Open final
The Belarusian recovered from a set and a break down to reach her first US Open final and inflict a painful defeat on Madison Keys
Aryna Sabalenka staged a stunning comeback to recover from a chastening opening set loss to defeat Madison Keys 0-6, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (5), and reach her first US Open final, denying the Arthur Ashe crowd an all-American women’s final in the process.
The newly-crowned world No 1 has suffered two agonising Grand Slam semi-final losses this year, surrendering final set leads at both Roland-Garros and at Wimbledon, but flipped the tables in New York to inflict a heartbreaking defeat on Keys, who served for the match in the second set.
A tale of two Sabalenkas
The first set flew by in 30 bewildering minutes by virtue of an erratic display from Sabalenka and some fine ball-striking by her American opponent.
Madison Keys steamrollered her way through the opener to take it 6-0, not allowing Sabalenka any time to set up her potent groundstrokes as she pummelled the Belarusian into submission with consistent power and depth.
Keys hit 12 winners to just five unforced errors while Sabalenka struggled for any kind of form, hitting 12 unforced errors and winning only 36% of points behind her usually formidable first serve.
It looked as though it was going to be a quick-fire win for Keys as a break in the third game of the second set was enough to set up a chance to serve for the match at 5-4.
However, in the blink of an eye the entire match turned on its head, Sabalenka breaking the American to love in what proved to be a massive momentum shift.
Suddenly unable to miss, with her first serve operating back up at its usual intimidating standard, Sabalenka was flying and Keys found herself with her back up against the wall. The psychological effect of having served for the match was clearly having an impact, as the American seemed powerless to halt the charge of Sabalenka.
A brief respite came in the form of a hold to take the set to a tiebreak, before the current world No 2 put her foot back on the accelerator to clinch the second set breaker 7-1 and complete a quite remarkable fightback.
A close decider requires a match tiebreak
Keys took a brief medical time-out at the end of the second set, and it seemed to do the trick. The final set was a very closely-fought affair, with both players bringing a consistent level.
It was Keys who struck first, breaking Sabalenka in the sixth game to move 4-2 up. But Sabalenka broke straight back, before saving two break points in the next game to level up the score at 4-4.
That proved to be a pivotal moment in the final set, as the rest of the decider went on serve, climaxing in what felt like a fitting way to decide the contest – a match tiebreak.
Here, Sabalenka’s greater experience at the business end of majors showed. The Belarusian was ruthless and ice-cool as she sauntered into a 4-0 lead.
Keys fought valiantly, pegging Sabalenka back to 4-2 and 5-3, before eventually succumbing 10-5 as she hit a return long.
It was an extraordinary recovery from the Australian Open champion, not only because of the scoreline midway through the second set, but primarily because of her ability to flick a switch and completely transform her game when she needed to most.
Heartbreak for Keys, Sabalenka looking ominous
For Keys, this will be a devastating loss. The world No 17 was one service hold away from returning to her home Grand Slam’s final, having also reached New York’s showpiece match in 2017. She was playing well against a misfiring opponent and had the match on her racquet before everything about the encounter changed in a heartbeat.
As always with latter-stage losses, there will be positives to take once the initial pain has subsided – but for Madison Keys, this one sadly might take quite some time to get over.
Sabalenka, on the other hand, has quashed her recent hoodoo in major semi-finals. She is the Australian Open champion, will be the new world No 1 come Monday, and has just reached a first US Open final in quite sublime fashion.
“Madison Keys played incredible tennis – it was just another level,” Sabalenka said in her on-court interview after the match.
“I don’t know how I turned this match. It really means a lot to me. I know you wanted her to win but thanks to you for staying and thanks for the atmosphere and thank you to those who supported me.”
Sabalenka: I will do my best
“They’re fired, they’re not my team anymore,” Sabalenka joked when asked about the frustrations she was directing towards her box.
“No, we spoke a lot after those tough semi-finals. With my emotions I have to do that – that is why I was yelling, screaming and swearing to them. It’s for a good reason.
“I will do everything I can [to win the final]. I’ll be fighting for every point and I will do my best.”
The Belarusian is playing with a swagger and a steeliness, the nature of her victory tonight bearing all the hallmarks of a champion-in-waiting.
Sabalenka will come up against another who has had the aura of a US Open champion-elect this year when she meets Coco Gauff in Saturday’s final.
As another Grand Slam season draws to a close, few could have dreamt up a better and more fitting finale than Aryna Sabalenka against New York darling and home hope Coco Gauff.
To quote this year’s quite appropriate US Open slogan – spectacular awaits.