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Sloane Stephens reaches her second major championship in nine months

US Open champion beats Madison Keys in the French Open semis, will face No. 1 player in the world for title

At this time a year ago, Sloane Stephens was unsure of her immediate path in tennis, as she was recovering from foot surgery that resulted in her being ranked No. 957 in the world when she finally returned to the sport.

On Saturday, Stephens will be playing for a Grand Slam title for the second time in her past three majors.

Playing in an All-American semifinal against Madison Keys, who is perhaps her closest friend on the tennis tour, Stephens was dominant in a straight-sets win (6-4, 6-4) to become the first U.S. woman not named Williams to play for a French Open title since 2001.

Stephens, who beat Keys for last year’s US Open title, will next face Simona Halep, the No. 1 player in the world, who advanced with a straight-sets win over Garbiñe Muguruza on Thursday. Halep, playing in her third French Open championship match and her second straight major final, has never won a Grand Slam title.

In a semifinal match where Stephens didn’t have an ace, she proved to be steady and consistent. Keys broke Stephens just once in the match and was undone by 41 unforced errors.

“Obviously, playing somebody from your own country is really tough. It’s a completely different set of emotions,” Stephens said in her on-court interview with the Tennis Channel after the match. “The semis of a Slam is really tough. I’m just happy I was able to stay consistent; I didn’t lose my cool. I played solid the whole time and was able to stick with my game plan.”

As she recovered from her foot injury last year that sent her rankings into a nosedive, Stephens stayed close to the game by working with the Tennis Channel. When she won the US Open last year as the No. 83 player in the world, becoming the lowest-ranked player to win a US Open championship, Stephens was borderline delirious as she held a check for $3.7 million, by far the biggest of her career. A win on Saturday would give Stephens her second Grand Slam win and a $2.4 million payday.

While Stephens is playing solid tennis, history says the road to the championship on Saturday won’t be easy.

Only three American women in the Open era have won Grand Slam titles in their first two major final appearances, and none of them is named Williams (Tracy Austin, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport).

To accomplish that, Stephens will have to beat the world’s No. 1 player, something she’s never done in six previous attempts.

In head-to-head matches against Halep, Stephens is 2-5 and has dropped the last four.

That, of course, was before she got a taste of winning a major.

“If you told me last year when I made my comeback I’d be in the final of two different Slams, I’d be like, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Stephens said. “I’ve learned a lot the last nine months. I’ll take a lot of that good stuff with me into the final.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.