New York | Way down and almost out, Aryna Sabalenka just kept reminding herself the match wasn't over until the final point.
Then she momentarily forgot that it hadn't arrived.
Sabalenka refocused after a premature victory celebration to wrap up a 0-6, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (10-5) victory over Madison Keys on Thursday night and reach her first U.S. Open final.
The Australian Open champion had been just 1-5 in Grand Slam semifinals, including losses the last two years in the round in New York. The second-seeded Sabalenka will face No. 6-seeded Coco Gauff on Saturday.
She wasn't sure how she was going to get there when the hard-hitting Keys rolled through the first set in 30 minutes and opened a 5-3 lead in the second.
“You just have to keep trying, keep staying there, and keep pushing it. Maybe you'll be able to turn around this game,” Sabalenka said. “Lucky me, somehow magically, I don't know how, I was able to turn around this game.” She did it by taking the two tiebreakers by a combined 17-6, able to laugh off her mistake in the second one.
When she moved out front 7-3, she dropped her racket and put her hands to her face, covering a huge smile after believing she'd won. But tiebreakers in decisive sets go to 10 points.
So Sabalenka quickly realized there was work to be done and finished the job on her third match point.
Sabalenka, the 25-year-old from Belarus, was already assured of rising to the top of the women's rankings on Monday even if she lost.
It appeared that's what she was going to do when the 17th-seeded Keys served for the match at 5-4 in the second. Sabalenka broke at love.
“Obviously, I started really well. I don't think she was playing her best at the start,” Keys said. “Then, from the second set, it just got a lot closer. I was obviously up a break, and I think serving for it I was tight. She played free. Then from there, it just seemed like it was really kind of neck and neck.” Early in that second set, after getting broken, Sabalenka went over to the corner near her guest box and slammed her racket on a towel box. Then she chucked her racket toward her entourage, but it didn't quite reach them and landed on the court.
But though she looked frustrated, she was remaining positive.
“Obviously, I was keep reminding myself that I lost a lot of tough matches," Sabalenka said. “I mean, one day all those matches should just, like, help me somehow.”
Keys was trying for a second trip to the U.S. Open final, where she lost to Sloane Stephens in 2017. She had her upper left leg taped before the third set but said the injury didn't affect her.
“I think everyone at the start of the tournament would obviously be really, really excited to be in the semis,” Keys said, breaking into tears. “Right now it sucks. But I just think being able to take this and turn it to a positive is really possible.”