Sloane Stephens, who missed 11 months with a left foot injury before returning in July, reached her first Grand Slam final by outlasting Venus Williams 6-1, 0-6, 7-5, on Thursday, at the US Open.
Stephens, whose best prior Slam run was to the 2013 Australian Open semi-finals, will play the winner of a later match between US compatriots CoCo Vandeweghe and Madison Keys on Saturday for a top prize of US$3.7 million.
“I just worked my tail off and tried to run every ball down and here we are,” Stephens said. “It required a lot of fight and a lot of grit.”
Stephens, who was ranked 957th in July when her hardcourt campaign began, has won 14 of her past 16 matches, including semi-final runs at Toronto and Cincinnati, for a total of US$310,000 this season.
“I have no words to describe what I’m feeling, what it took to get here, the journey I’ve been on,” Stephens said.
“It’s incredible. I don’t know how I got here. Your guess is as good as mine. Just hard work. That’s it.”
Now 83rd, Stephens is the lowest ranked Slam finalist since unranked Justine Henin at the 2010 Australian Open and the lowest at the US Open since unranked Kim Clijsters won the 2009 title.
“It was definitely well competed,” Williams said. “In the end she won more points than I did and that’s what it added up to.
“Just made so many errors at the end there… I wasn’t playing well. Just wasn’t playing well.”
Williams will return to the top five in Monday’s world rankings for the first time since 2011, the year she was diagnosed with strength-sapping Sjogren’s Syndrome.
Stephens, who beat Williams in the first round of the 2015 French Open in their only prior meeting, will jump into the world top 25 next week with the victory.
A first-time career Slam champion is assured with Keys and Vandeweghe also having gone no deeper than a Slam semi-final.
Vandeweghe, seeded 20th, reached her only prior Slam semi in January’s Australian Open while 15th seed Keys made her lone last-four major at the 2015 Australian Open.
It’s the first all-American US Open women’s semi-finals since 1981 and the first at any Slam since Wimbledon in 1985. Saturday will be the first all-American US Open women’s final since Serena Williams beat Venus in 2002.
On Friday, the men return to Arthur Ashe Stadium with 15-time Slam champion Rafael Nadal, the world number one, seeking his fourth trip to the New York hardcourt finals against 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, the 24th seed from Argentina.
Stephens is 4-0 in WTA finals, having won titles in 2015 at Washington and last year in Auckland, Acapulco and Charleston.