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…