Sloane Stephens has a simple approach to her game these days. "Keep fighting," she said. That was Stephens' mantra when her U.S. Open championship last year was followed by eight consecutive losses, a staggering, frustrating and almost inexplicable freefall. And those words kept popping into her head Thursday, when she shook off a very slow start to beat Victoria Azarenka 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 in the semifinals at the Miami Open.
Stephens' opponent in Saturday's final will be sixth-seeded Jelena Ostapenko, who beat American qualifier Danielle Collins 7-6 (1), 6-3 in the other semifinal Thursday.
"In the first set, I was down but came back and I battled really well," said Stephens, who is looking to improve to 6-0 in finals. "So I knew if I did that in the second I'd be right in there. I ended up winning a lot of games in a row, and just tried to keep the momentum going."
Stephens dropped the first three games against Azarenka, needing only 11 minutes to get into trouble. She then won 15 of the final 21 games.
"I honestly didn't feel good at all the whole match," said Azarenka, a three-time champion at Key Biscayne whose 11-match winning streak there was snapped. "I felt like I was a little bit too slow. ... I just stopped getting to the ball, I stopped hitting the ball the way I should be hitting the ball and she's going to jump on it."
It was only the fourth tournament for Azarenka since 2016. She became a mother late that year — her son's name, Leo, is scrawled on the sneakers she wears in matches — and returned to play Mallorca and Wimbledon last year. Azarenka got a wild-card entry to play Indian Wells, another wild card into Miami and was ousted by Stephens in both of those.
When she will play again is unclear. Azarenka has been involved in a custody dispute for several months and is headed back to Los Angeles, where she makes her home.
"I don't have any news to share with you right now," she said.
Azarenka entered this event ranked No. 186. She'll be at least No. 93 when the new WTA rankings come out next week, after getting through four seeded players on her way to the Miami semifinals.
"Overall, what I've done is not bad at all," Azarenka said, summing up her four-week return. "To make the progress from one week to another week, barely practising and barely even eating, not too bad."
Besides the trip to the final, there are a few significant other perks for Stephens, who spent some of her youth learning the game at Key Biscayne.
She's assured the second-biggest earnings check of her career - either $654,380 or $1,340,860, depending on the outcome, a figure exceeded only by the $3.7 million she got from the U.S. Open victory. When the new rankings come out, she'll make her debut in the top 10. If that wasn't enough, she'll also become part of history.
The Miami Open isn't ending, but it's moving about a half-hour's drive north to the Miami Dolphins' stadium next year. Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Chris Evert are all past champions of the event and Stephens - from Plantation, Florida, near Fort Lauderdale - will have a shot at joining them in the final women's match at the facility where breezes constantly roll off the water.
"I'm like, what's going to happen to Crandon Park? What's going to be here? What's going to happen?" Stephens said. "There's so many questions. But I think it'll be cool. Obviously, to play in front of my friends and family again here for the last time, it feels kind of cool that I'll be able to close it out in style for them."