NEW YORK — Aryna Sabalenka had just lost the first set in her semifinal match 6-0 against Madison Keys at the US Open on Thursday night, and she appeared stunned and defeated as she headed to her chair. The sweat dripped down her face.
This was hardly how the soon-to-be crowned world No. 1 player was supposed to look.
And it was a far cry from how she had played throughout the rest of the tournament. The 25-year-old and reigning Australian Open champion hadn’t dropped a set — nor more than five games in a match — throughout her run before her clash with Keys.
But on Thursday, Sabalenka, who has a tiger tattoo on her left arm, was lacking her signature roar. She was listless and unfocused during the deflating opening 30 minutes of play. On a night filled with the unexpected in Arthur Ashe Stadium, it was perhaps the most surprising sight of all.
“I was all over the place,” Sabalenka said later. I was just, like, ‘What can I do?’ Like, she’s playing unbelievable, just, like, crushing everything. I’m not able to do anything; I had zero control in the match.
“I just [kept] telling myself, I mean, ‘OK, there is going to be days like this [where] somebody’s 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.’”
In the second set, Sabalenka was broken in the third game and then found herself trailing, 5-3. With one game standing between her and going home, Sabalenka raised her level and pounced on Keys’ errors and every sign of nerves. She evened the score and ultimately forced a tiebreak.
She won the tiebreak.
And then, needing another tiebreak in the deciding set, she won the match. No matter that she thought she had won the match at 7-3, even beginning to celebrate; she found a way just a few minutes later. After two hours and 32 minutes, Sabalenka emerged victorious with the baffling scoreline, 0-6, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (5). She fell to her knees before standing and clutching her head in her hand. She became just the third woman in the Open Era to win a Grand Slam semifinal match after being bageled in the opening set.
“Somehow, I don’t know how, I turned around the match,” she told Rennae Stubbs on court, struggling to find the words to sum up what she had just done.
During the 2022 US Open, Sabalenka was on the other side of a devastating semifinal loss, having won the opening set before falling to eventual champion Iga Swiatek. But she’s a different player a year later– and it showed.
It’s been a monumental stretch for Sabalenka since her exit in New York last September. She opened 2023 with the title at Adelaide and then won the first major of her career in Melbourne. Since then, she won the 1000-level title in Madrid, as well as playing in the finals at Indian Wells and Stuttgart, and became the first player since Serena Williams in 2016 to reach the semifinals in all four majors in the same season. Having spent almost the entirety of the year ranked at No. 2, she had been open about her childhood dream of taking over the world’s top spot. She had come close to achieving it over the past several months but had been unable to catch Swiatek.
She narrowed the gap as the season went on, and, entering the US Open, she simply needed to match or do better than Swiatek’s final result. When Swiatek lost in the fourth round, Sabalenka then became the No. 1 in waiting, to be made official in the rankings released after the tournament. When speaking to the media the next day, she said she was happy about the milestone but wasn’t really thinking about it just yet.
“I’m focusing on [the] US Open,” Sabalenka said. “I don’t want to celebrate anything before the end of the US Open. So I just want to focus on this tournament more than on world No. 1.”
Yet, despite her incredible year and her soon-to-be ranking, she’s been somewhat under the radar during her time in New York. Her first three matches were played in Louis Armstrong Stadium, not Ashe, and her results have been overshadowed by other players and storylines. But now she’s into the second Grand Slam final of her career and will take on American 19-year-old and fan favorite Coco Gauff on Saturday under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages.
Keys had such a sizable lead by the time Gauff came to her news conference after her earlier match that there wasn’t a single question even asked about a potential match against Sabalenka. But Gauff surely knows from their previous matches that it will be a challenge.
The two have played five times previously, with Gauff winning three of those meetings, but with Sabalenka winning their most recent match, at Indian Wells in March, 6-4, 6-0. But now, because red-hot Gauff is riding a 17-1 win streak on the hardcourt this summer, and earned the titles in Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., Sabalenka said that last meeting means nothing in terms of her preparation. But if Thursday taught her anything, it’s that she will be prepared to battle until the very last point.
“She [has] improved a lot [since then],” Sabalenka said. “So it’s a different player. We don’t like really thinking about that match.
“Going into this final, I think I just have to focus on myself and prepare myself for another fight. … You just have to be there and you have to fight for it.”