Aryna Sabalenka maintained her focus to produce a clinical defeat of Qinwen Zheng to reach the US Open semi-finals on Wednesday afternoon, and she will face Madison Keys next, who firmly dealt with Marketa Vondrousova in an equally impressive manner in the night session on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
I think she’s, obviously, a phenomenal tennis player [Sabalenka]. She has a ton of power. She serves really well. To be quite honest, the year that she was able to have, with the serving troubles that she had, I think, it just shows she's an incredible competitor, and fighter. I mean, she's really, really good. Madison Keys
Sabalenka, the Australian Open champion, who will take over as World No 1 next week, booked her place in the Last 4 with a 6-1 6-4 win in 73 minutes, while Keys, the 2017 US Open finalist, took out Vondrousova, the reigning Wimbledon champion, by the same score, 6-1 6-4, in an hour and 26 minutes.
“I think I definitely played great tennis today,” Sabalenka said after her match, having now reached the semi-finals at the last 5 Grand Slam events she has played in, a run that started last year in New York, and she was within a point of reaching the French Open final in June, and lost in 3 sets in the Wimbledon semi-finals in July.
“I had a couple of really tough losses this year, but, as I said, we’re not losing, we are learning,” Sabalenka said. “I just have really strong belief that all those tough matches that I lost will help me in the future in other tough matches, other tough battles.”
20-year old Zheng is China’s rising star, who downed last year’s finalist Ons Jabeur in the 4th-round, but the 23rd seed could not come close to toppling the hard-hitting Sabalenka on Day 10.
The conditions didn’t help either, with the blazing sun and the Arthur Ashe Stadium roof creating a difficult environment to see the ball, so much so that Sabalenka’s first serve glanced off Zheng’s frame.
It didn’t get much better after that, as Sabalenka won 22 of the first 27 points to take a 5-0 lead.
In her first major quarter-final, Zheng’s timing was distinctly off, and she was quickly punished as the Belarusian threatened to run away with the match after a blistering start in which she broke twice for a 3-0 lead, conceding just 2 points.
Zheng was broken again to go 4-0 down, Sabalenka winning 16 of the first 19 points, and, although the Chinese finally held in the 6th game after 27 minutes to avoid the bagel, the No 2 seed served out easily to take the first set in just 27 minutes.
Sabalenka’s dominance was reflected in her serve, where she won 23 of 26 points on her first delivery, and 13 of 19 on her second, which prevented Zheng from conjuring up a single break point chance across the whole match.
“She has one of the fastest serve in tour, close speed to some men’s,” Zheng said later. “If you want to beat her, first you have to know how to handle her service game. Today I didn’t handle it well. That’s why I couldn’t break her even once.”
Zheng did rather better in the second set, keeping it on a more even keel, and, at 2-2, she opened up the court in a 21-shot rally to whip a forehand past Sabalenka’s reach.
The crowd roared, hoping for some sort of a come-back but, after Sabalenka broke her yet again in the 7th game for a 4-3 lead, the result was never in doubt.
Zheng’s head was down, though, and was sticking to her main shots, erasing match point at 3-5 down, and then Sabalenka coughed up a double-fault to open the door.
Unfazed, Sabalenka rattled an inside-in forehand on the very next point, and the Belarusian wrapped up the win on her second match point.
On Monday, Sabalenka is set to become World No 1 for the first time in her career, and the 25-year-old justified that new ranking with a lights-out display.
“I think I definitely played great tennis today,” she said. “I’m super happy with the win against her, she’s played unbelievable tennis this US Open. Super happy to give myself another opportunity to do better in the semis.”
Since her new status was confirmed, Sabalenka has lost just 9 games in 4 sets, but is setting aside all distracting thoughts.
“I’m trying to focus on my game,” she added. “I’ll focus on being No 1 after the US Open.”
Her eyes are now firmly on the silverware, but Sabalenka must get past Keys first.
Into the Last 4, Sabalenka is 2-1 in her battles with Keys, including a straight-sets passage at Wimbledon back in July.
Sabalenka’s tight-knit team gave some insight to reporters at a press conference on Tuesday, when coach Anton Dubrov and fitness trainer Jason Stacy revealed that the off-season was a crucial component for their charge’s major moves in 2023.
“I will say the body language and her focus was on the court, ‘I have to build myself to be better and better and better every day’,” Dubrov said. “During the match, she even said that this was easier for her to understand, even when she’s feeling something not great today, she still has a lot of weapons that she can use.”
She is fine-tuning that mental fortitude, constantly evolving to help her cope with life at the very top.
“I agree with Anton; the big focus was, one, just continuing to help her build a sense of control, understand what she’s doing, why she’s doing something, whether it’s a specific thing like a stroke, a serve, the technique, some tactics,” Stacy continued.
“She’s continued over the last so many years, more and more and more opening up to be more vulnerable, to be open to try new things, and to be able to do the things that make her very uncomfortable, rather than try and avoid it, or go around it, or pretend it’s not there. She’s like, ‘Okay, just turn around and face it’.”
Sabalenka now owns a 22-2 record at Grand Slams this season, and is looking to increase this against Keys.
The quarter-final match between Keys and Vondrousova was briefly delayed during the first game for a spectator that required medical attention, but when play resumed, the American reeled off 11 of the next 12 points on her way to storming out to a 5-0 lead.
While Vondrousova bravely saved 2 set points to get on the board, Keys comfortably wrapped up the set in the next game with a scorching forehand winner.
Vondrousova appeared to still be bothered by the elbow injury that she struggled with in her 4th-round win over another American, Peyton Stearns, and forced her to withdraw from the women’s doubles with Barbora Strycova.
Most of her first serves landed in at under 100 mph, and her second serves sat up in Keys’ strike zone, allowing the American to dictate play from her first shot.
Also, Keys did not allow Vondrousova a look-in on her own serve, as she brought an end to the Czech’s run of 10 straight wins at the Grand Slams, going back to her Wimbledon triumph in July, although, when the match began, it didn’t look like as if the American would emerge as the winner with such a score-line.
Keys had to save 3 break points in a lengthy opening service game before holding, but once she was up and running, she began to strike the ball more freely.
She did save 2 more break points while trying to consolidate her second break for a 5-0 lead, and, in the following game, the Czech finally broke her to hold serve for the first time in the match, avoiding a bagel.
A game later, though, Keys had secured the opener, but Vondrousova quickly set that aside and held her ground, as well as her serve, right up until the 9th game without facing any break points in second act.
The Wimbledon champion’s elbow appeared to have warmed up, which allowed her to increase the velocity on her serve, and to swing more freely in the baseline rallies.
She racked up 5 break points with Keys serving at 3-4, but the No 17 seed dug deep to erase all of them and held.
Unable to crack Keys’ serve, despite having those chances, the Czech’s serve subsequently cracked, and an energised 17th seed broke Vondrousova in the next game with a crushing return.
Serving for the match, the 28-year-old American was pushed to a couple of deuces and, eventually, needed 3 match points to get over the finish line, having faced 9 break points in the match and saving the lot.
“I love playing here,” Keys said in her on-court interview. “In front of a home crowd, you feel like you can get out of any situation. Whenever I walk on court here, I feel like I’m at home.”
Keys struck 19 winners to the World No 9’s 10, and 28 unforced errors to the latter’s 19.
She is through to her first Grand Slam semi-final since the 2018 US Open, and has produced some of the best results of her career since starting to be coached in June by her fiancée, ATP pro Bjorn Fratangelo.
“I think that it’s, obviously, I just, kind of, find another gear when it comes to Slams,” Keys said. “I think part of it is that I put a little bit more pressure on myself, which is a good thing, and also a bad thing sometimes.
“I have just, kind of, peaked at the right time.”
Keys stormed to her first title of the year in Eastbourne without dropping a set, and followed that result up with a quarter-final showing at Wimbledon, and now, after that run, she has gone one better in New York.
“I think, sometimes, I do it well and, sometimes, I do it really badly,” she said. “But I think it’s just, kind of, reminding yourself that these are the matches that you grow up dreaming of. These are the moments you want to be in.
“So [there is] that pressure of the big stage, but also just the reminder of this is, literally, what we have all dreamed of.
“These are the moments that you’re practicing for, and you’re playing for, and you’re constantly trying to get back to.
“So it’s a little bit of pressure, but it’s also a little bit of a freeing moment of, I mean, I’m just going to go out and try to do the best that I can.”
Her back-to-back wins this fortnight over World No 3 Jessica Pegula and Vondrousova mark the first time she has scored consecutive wins over Top 10 players since the 2022 Australian Open.
Next up for Keys is a semi-final showdown with Sabalenka.
“Almost a completely different match tomorrow,” Keys reflected. “She’s playing unbelievably now. There’s a reason she’s going to be No 1 in the world [on Monday].
“It’ll be a lot of hard hitting, not a lot of rallies. I’m just going to buckle up and get to as many balls as I can.”
While Sabalenka has not lost a set in her 5 wins, Keys has dropped just one, which was in the opener against Liudmila Samsonova in the 3rd-round, and the American owns the better serving numbers, with holds in 96% of her service games, 46 of 48, although the Belarusian is not far behind at 86%, which is 36 from 42.
“I think she’s, obviously, a phenomenal tennis player,” Keys added. ”She has a ton of power. She serves really well.
“To be quite honest, the year that she was able to have with the serving troubles that she had, I think it just shows she’s an incredible competitor, and fighter. I mean, she’s really, really good.
“I think tomorrow it’s definitely going to be a lot of who can get in charge of the point as early as possible, because I feel, like, both of our games, if you get behind in the point, it’s a lot harder to get back to neutral, and then get back on the aggressive side.”
While there may be little to separate two of the WTA’s biggest power players, Keys can count on at least one advantage on Thursday evening in Ashe and that is the backing of the home New York crowd.