US Open Day 11: Sabalenka's miracle on Ashe

No.2 seed pulls off incredible comeback to set up Gauff final showdown

Aryna Sabalenka / Demi-finales US Open 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Reem Abulleil

And then they were two... Aryna Sabalenka and Coco Gauff are the last two women standing at this year's US Open and will square off for a maiden title in New York on Saturday.

Here's how the semi-finals went down on Thursday at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Back from the brink

Soon-to-be world No.1 Aryna Sabalenka was left speechless after she rallied back from 0-6, 3-5 down against Madison Keys to complete a remarkable victory and reach the US Open final for the first time in her career.

The reigning Australian Open champion looked on her way to losing a fourth Grand Slam semi-final from her last five appearances but broke Keys as the American was serving for the match and secured her place in the title decider with a 0-6, 7-6(1), 7-6(10-5) victory in the early hours of Friday morning.

“She played incredible tennis, it was just another level. I don’t know how I turned around this match and I won it. It really means a lot, being in the final of the US Open for the first time, it really means a lot to me,” said Sabalenka in her on-court interview.

Another American awaits Sabalenka in the final in the form of 19-year-old phenom Coco Gauff, who will be bidding for a maiden Grand Slam trophy when they square off on Saturday.

Madison Keys / Demi-finales US Open 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

“She’s an unbelievable player, she’s playing really incredible tennis here at the US Open and the crowd will be supporting her a lot, that’s something I’m expecting. This is nothing crazy. I’ll just go there and do everything I can. I’ll be there, I’ll be fighting for every point, I’ll do my best,” said Sabalenka, who trails Gauff 2-3 head-to-head.

Keys made a near-flawless start to the match, hitting just five unforced errors as she delivered a bagel-set in half an hour to a struggling Sabalenka, who walked off court for a toilet break and a much-needed mental reset.

Sabalenka dropped serve in the third game of the second, thanks to more punishing groundstrokes from a dialled-in Keys. She tried to toss her racquet to her team while complaining to her coach and received a code violation as a result. The brief tantrum worked as Sabalenka struck right back to level for 2-all but a lightning-fast return winner from Keys saw the American regain the lead in game five.

This time Keys managed to consolidate her break advantage for 4-2, with a little help from an overcooked Sabalenka forehand.

Aryna Sabalenka / Demi-finales US Open 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Serving for the win at 5-4, Keys got broken at love as Sabalenka put together her best return game of the match.

Keys suddenly went from serving for the match to serving to stay in the set and was in real trouble as she stared down two set/break points. The 28-year-old stepped up though, producing four huge serves to win the next four points and force a tiebreak.

It was all Sabalenka in the breaker as the No.2 seed dropped just one point to take the semi-final into a decider on the one-hour 26-minute mark.

Aryna Sabalenka / Demi-finales US Open 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Keys asked for the trainer and took an off-court medical timeout to receive some treatment for a left thigh issue before the third set began.

A costly double fault from Sabalenka saw her face triple-break point in game six of the decider and Keys converted her second opportunity for a 4-2 lead.

An ultra-aggressive Sabalenka retaliated immediately to get the set back on serve and it became a tug of war between both players as the match fittingly went to a deciding super-tiebreak.

Keys quickly found herself down 0-4 as Sabalenka’s confidence grew with every groundstroke. The 25-year-old had six straight match points when she surged ahead 9-3 and converted her third opportunity to reach her second major final of the season.

Coco holds her nerve

The word ‘poise’ gets tossed around a lot when it comes to describing Coco Gauff and with good reason.

The 19-year-old American can stay grounded in the toughest of situations and her poise is what helped her survive a battling Karolina Muchova in the second set of their clash on Thursday to reach a maiden US Open final.

The youngest American to make it to the championship match in New York since Serena Williams in 1999, Gauff was broken while serving for the victory and needed six match points to overcome the 10th-seeded Muchova 6-4, 7-5 in an exciting two-hour and three-minute affair.

The penultimate point was a 40-shot rally clinched by Gauff, who has now won 17 of her last 18 matches heading into the final.

“It was a tough match. I had leads, lost it, and serving for it. It was a lot of emotional challenges in the match. But I think I did a good job of staying focused. I'm just really proud of myself today,” said Gauff, who is into her second major final, having placed runner-up at Roland-Garros in 2022.

Currently on an 11-match winning streak – the longest unbeaten run of her career – the world No.6 thanked the Arthur Ashe stadium crowd for backing her throughout the match and spoke about how special it was to make the final of her home Grand Slam.

“A lot to celebrate but the job is not done so hopefully you guys can back me on Saturday,” the American said in her on-court interview, later confirming it was a nod to the late Kobe Bryant, who famously said those words after winning a game in an NBA Finals series.

“He's, like, has an incredible mentality. One of the things is when he's up in the NBA Finals when they're up in the count or 3-1, whatever lead they have, he doesn't celebrate. He'd satisfy, give himself a pat on the back but time to move on,” explained Gauff.

“So that's the mentality that I have. I'm trying to enjoy the moment but also knowing I still have more work to do. Yes, the final is an incredible achievement but it's something that I'm not satisfied with yet.”

Karolina Muchova / Demi-finales US Open 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Gauff was locked in from the start, hitting with flair, on demand, as she carved out a 3-0 opening. Mixing lobs with passing shots and powerful groundstrokes, Gauff went up a double-break 5-1 before Muchova settled in and clinched three games in a row to narrow her deficit. Still, a love break saw Gauff seal the first set in 42 minutes as a Muchova backhand landed in the net.

A game into the second set, play was interrupted by protesters and after 10 minutes of stoppage, Muchova and Gauff walked off court until the situation was resolved.

Play resumed after a 49-minute delay and the players were neck and neck until another Muchova backhand error handed Gauff a break for 5-3.

Coco Gauff / Demi-finales US Open 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Serving for a spot in the final, the Floridian feathered a sensational drop shot to get her hands on a first match point but some bold net play from Muchova saw the Czech save it.

With newfound aggression and lots of patience in the long rallies, Muchova managed to break Gauff as the American was serving for the win and just like that, the No.10 seed was back in it as she levelled for 5-all.

Gauff recovered and was once again in the lead at 6-5. Muchova saved four more match points in game 12 before Gauff created a sixth opportunity by winning a gruelling 40-shot rally.

This time the No.6 seed did not falter as she sealed the victory in two hours and two minutes on a long backhand from Muchova.

“I'm pretty sad about the outcome, that I didn't put the best out of me on the court. Yeah, just kind of sad about the performance,” said the Czech world No.10, who finished the match with 36 unforced errors, compared to just 12 winners.

“You need to bring maybe 100 percent to beat her because she's top athlete, top player. You really need to be there to get a chance to get a win. I don't think I played my 60 percent today, so I had not zero chance, but even if I had chance there, I didn't take it today.”

Quote of the day

“Serena is Serena. She’s the GOAT. I’d hope to do half of what she did. But I’m not going to compare myself to her. She’s someone I look up to. Being in the same stat line as her means a lot to me. She’s my idol. The only regret I’ll have for the rest of my life is not being able to play her. I’m still happy to just be a product of her legacy.”

– Coco Gauff to ESPN

Stats of the day

– Sabalenka notched her 50th victory of 2023, the first time she has picked up at least 50 matches in one season in her career.

– Sabalenka fired 12 aces against Keys and now leads the tournament with a total of 32 struck through six matches.

– The 40-shot rally played out between Gauff and Muchova is the longest rally count of the tournament so far across men’s and women’s singles.

– Gauff is looking to become the fourth American woman to win the US Open this century after Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and Sloane Stephens.

– Gauff won 50 percent of her receiving points against Muchova on Thursday.

Coco Gauff / Demi-finales US Open 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT