Aryna Sabalenka denied the New York crowd an all-American final at the US Open when she edged past Madison Keys in a tense semi-final match tiebreak on Thursday night on Arthur Ashe Stadium, where, in the first night session semi-fianl, Coco Gauff had secured her spot with an impressive straight sets win over Karolina Muchova.
It was a tough match. I had leads, lost it. It was a lot of emotional, I guess, challenges in the match. But I think I did a good job of staying focused. I have been focusing more on myself, and my expectations of myself, Not going on social media. I really believe that, now, I have the maturity and ability to do it. Regardless of what happens on Saturday, I'm really proud of how I have been handling the last few weeks. Coco Gauff
Both encounters were full of drama of varying sorts, but the upshot was a very tight 0-6 7-6(1) 7-6[10-6] win for Sabalenka over Keys after a 2 hour 33 minute scrap, while Gauff took out Muchova, 6-4 7-5, in 2 hours 3 minutes, enduring a 49-minute interruption early in the second set when environmental activists staged a protest in the upper tiers of the stadium.
Play was held up as officials removed the 4 protestors, one having glued their bare feet to the concrete floor of the arena, and all were taken into police custody.
Gauff, the 19-year old 6th-seeded American, shrugged off the stoppage to power past Muchova, the 10th seed from Czech Republic, into her first US Open final
Later she said the incident had been ‘challenging’, although she has sympathy for the activists’ cause.
“I definitely, I believe, you know, in climate change,” Gauff said. “I know the tournaments are doing things to do better for the environment.
“I think that moments like this are history-defining moments. I prefer it not to happen in my match but I wasn’t pissed at the protesters. I know the stadium was, because it just interrupted entertainment.
“Obviously, I don’t want it to happen when I’m winning up 6-4, 1-0, and I wanted the momentum to keep going. But hey, if that’s what they felt they needed to do to get their voices heard, I can’t really get upset at it.”
The protest was the latest high-profile sporting event to be targeted by environmental activists in recent years, with both Wimbledon and the French Open having also been disrupted by protesters this season.
“I mean, it happened at Wimbledon, as well,” Muchova said. “We see it here and there, on some occasions. It is what it is. I mean, it’s obviously changed the rhythm a little bit. What can we do about it? People.”
Gauff broke Muchova twice early on to race out to a 5-1 lead, but she regained her composure to turn the tables as fluency returned to her powerful groundstrokes.
Muchova fought back to break, cutting Gauff’s lead to 5-4 after the teenager had twice served for the set, but then the Czech faltered.
As close as it got to getting even, Muchova tightened up, and 4 unforced errors, 3 of them backhands into the net, handed Gauff the set, with the Czech finishing the opener with 17 unforced errors.
For 5 years Muchova has been one of the Hologic WTA Tour’s best and most fluid players when she has been healthy, and she has been to the quarter-finals of all four majors, while back in June she pushed World No 1 Iga Swiatek to 3 sets in the final at Roland Garros, and, more recently in Cincinnati, knocked out Sabalenka in the semi-finals.
“She’s the type of player it’s so hard to get a rhythm,” Gauff said later on the set of ESPN. “In the second set she started to play more aggressive. I told myself, ‘Just trust yourself in the moment. You’ve got to trust yourself’.”
The second set was only a game old when environmental activists disrupted play, chanting ‘End fossil fuels’, with Gauff leading 1-0.
After the subsequent delay, they returned and remained on serve until the 8th game, when Gauff took advantage of an ill-advised serve-and-volley from Muchova, punishing her with a forehand winner.
When another Muchova backhand found the net, Gauff led 5-3, but then was broken serving for the match, and the Czech held off a match point to level at 5-5 before the American held for a 6-5 lead.
Muchova saved 4 more match points on her serve, but, after a terrific 40-shot rally and another poor drop-shot from the Czech, Gauff converted on her 6th when the 10th seed hammered a backhand return long to leave the 19-year old victorious.
“Today I was not feeling it from the start until the end,” Muchova confessed later. “I’m pretty sad about the outcome, that I didn’t put the best out of me on the court.
“She’s moving well. She really gets that extra point back, so you have to be focused and finish points.
“You have to really be there on the court, and then see where she is running. You have to think where to put the ball, [whether] to finish it at the net or try to play it earlier.”
In her press conference, Gauff said: “It was a tough match. I had leads, lost it. It was a lot of emotional, I guess, challenges in the match. But I think I did a good job of staying focused.”
Extending her exceptional summer run, Gauff has now won 11 straight matches, the best streak of her career, with 17 out of 18 played, in a stretch that includes titles in Washington DC and Cincinnati.
“I have been focusing more on myself, and my expectations of myself,” Gauff continued. “Not going on social media. I really believe that, now, I have the maturity and ability to do it.
“Regardless of what happens on Saturday, I’m really proud of how I have been handling the last few weeks.”
Gauff has reached two singles finals in her Grand Slam career, at the Roland Garros in 2022 and now here at the 2023 US Open, while she is also the youngest American woman to reach the final in New York since her idol Serena Williams in 1999.
In Saturday’s final, Gauff will face No 2 seed Sabalenka, the 25-year-old from Belarus, who will take over the World No 1 ranking from Swiatek on Monday, and has been in scintillating form in New York.
She was forced to come back from the brink, though, to dig out her win against 17th seeded Keys to make her slot in the final, going the full distance in the process, and having been just one game away from losing, before she turned the match around to take a 3-1 lead in her head-to-head over the American.
She also had to fight back from a break down in the third set before eventually prevailing in the match-tiebreak, finishing off the win just before 1 am local time.
“I’m really proud of myself that I was able to turn around this game and get this win, because it was just incredible,” Sabalenka said after the win. “I was just, like, ‘Come on, keep trying, keep pushing, like, I don’t know, do something extra. Just try to turn around this match’.
“I think this, kind of, thinking really helped me to stay in the game, and to keep trying, keep pushing, to still have this belief that I have a chance to turn around this match.”
Sabalenka suffered a disastrous opening set, receiving a rare bagel, and then fell a break behind in the second to leave Keys serving for the match at 5-4, but the Australian Open champion roared back to force the tiebreak, which she won emphatically, and then rode her luck in the deciding set, once again recovering from a break down to set up a match-breaker.
She was left blushing after mistakenly celebrating victory in the tiebreak, though, when she went 7-3 up, forgetting the 2022 rule change, which dictates that final set tiebreaks are now first-to-10.
“I thought that we play tiebreak up till seven,” a sheepish Sabalenka admitted later. “I was just all over the place.”
Sabalenka had not dropped a set en route to the semi-finals, and had only lost 21 games in the 10 sets she played, but she was put firmly onto her back foot early on by a dazzling performance from Keys in the opener.
Appearing in her 6th career Grand Slam semi-final, Keys blitzed her way to a one-set lead in a half hour, thanks to a staggering 12 winners to just 3 unforced errors, while Sabalenka racked up 12 miscues.
Keys, the 2017 US Open runner-up, looked to be heading for a return trip to the final and found herself 3 points away from an eye-popping straight-sets win at 6-0, 5-3, 0-15, and later, served for the match at 6-0, 5-4, but she never reached match point.
Three errors and a double-fault from the American when she stepped up to the line in that game handed Sabalenka second life, which she grabbed with both hands to win 18 of the next 23 points to spin the match around and force the decider.
“It was crazy. I was all over the place,” Sabalenka said afterwards. “I was just, like, ‘What can I do?’ She’s playing unbelievable, just crushing everything. I’m not able to do anything, like, I had zero control in the match.
“I was just, like, I was just keep telling myself, I mean, okay, there is going to be this, like this? Somebody going to just play their best tennis? You just have to keep trying, keep staying there, and keep pushing it. Maybe you’ll be able to turn around this game.
“Lucky me, somehow, magically, I don’t know how, I was able to turn around this game.”
The third set echoed the first two, and, having saved a break point in the opening game, Keys was the first to break to lead, 4-2.
Again, Sabalenka showed her mettle, breaking back immediately, and saving 2 more break points in the 8th game, which set the stage for a scintillating finale as they reached the winner-take-all, first to 10-points match-breaker.
Sabalenka saved her best for last, winning the first 4 points, and 4 more in a row from 5-3 to 9-3, finishing the 2-hour, 32-minute thriller off on her 3rd match point.
There was a time when Sabalenka would have wilted in a match such as this, but the 5-foot-11 base-liner is a different player these days, since breaking through to her first major singles title at this year’s Australian Open.
“I kept reminding myself that I lost a lot of tough matches,” she said. “I mean, one day all those matches should help me somehow.
“This kind of thinking helped me to stay in the game, and gave me some hope that I’d be able to turn this match around, that the match was not over until the last point, and that I just have to keep fighting, keep trying to find my rhythm, my game, just find myself.”
The Belarusian is the 3rd woman in the Open Era to win a Grand Slam semi-final after being bagelled in the first set, following in the footsteps of Steffie Graf, against Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario at Roland Garros in 1992, and Ana Ivanovic, against Daniela Hantuchova at the 2008 Australian Open.
Sabalenka will hope for a reversal in fortunes when she takes on Gauff on Saturday, as she trails the 19-year-old 3-2 in their all-time head-to-head.
Their only meeting this year, though, went Sabalenka’s way, when she was an emphatic 6-4 6-0 winner in the quarter-finals in Indian Wells in March.
“She improved a lot. So it’s a different player,” Sabalenka said. “Going into this final, I think I just have to focus on myself and prepare myself for another fight. No matter what, just keep fighting and keep playing my best and do my best. … What else can you do? You just have to be there and you have to fight for it.”
Sabalenka, who now boasts 50 match wins in 2023, a new personal best, with 23 of them have come at Grand Slams, is the favourite to take the title but Gauff is on a mission and could well pull off the upset with the New York fans behind her.