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Sabalenka targets second Grand Slam final in stellar season

NEW YORK - Aryna Sabalenka will go into her U.S. Open semi-final with local favourite Madison Keys on Thursday hoping it will be a launch pad and not a familiar stumbling block as the Belarusian continues her quest for a second Grand Slam crown.

Sabalenka fell at the last-four hurdle in her previous two visits to New York and, although the 25-year-old made her major breakthrough by winning the Australian Open in January, she then lost her semi-finals at the French Open and Wimbledon.

With top seed Iga Swiatek's premature exit from Flushing Meadows, the second-seeded Sabalenka is assured to leave with the top ranking whatever her result against Keys.

"When you get to the last stages of the tournament, you're going to think about what if, what I want, what I would like and you're dreaming," Sabalenka told reporters after crushing China's Zheng Qinwen on Wednesday.

"I'm not trying to block the stats, because when you're trying to block something it's going to keep getting in your head and it can get annoying. When you're not trying to block it, it actually goes away.

"I know I have to do my job. I have to go on court. I have to play my best tennis. I have to fight for it. I know that if I'll be there, if I'll be fighting for my dream, I can get it."

Keys, meanwhile, is hoping to fulfil her own dream of reaching Saturday's final for another shot at a maiden Grand Slam trophy. The 2017 runner-up has once again managed the pressure and unlocked her full potential with a deep run.

"I just find another gear when it comes to Slams," the 28-year-old Keys, seeded 17th, said after beating Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova on Wednesday.

"I think part of it is that I put a little bit more pressure on myself, which is a good thing and also a bad thing sometimes. But I have just kind of peaked at the right time, I guess."

Keys' compatriot and sixth seed Coco Gauff is also hitting her stride at the tournament despite some early wobbles and the former French Open runner-up will meet this year's Roland Garros finalist Karolina Muchova, the 10th seed.

The 19-year-old Gauff won their only meeting less than three weeks ago in the Cincinnati final and will be heavily backed by American fans hungry for a first homegrown major champion since Sofia Kenin's 2020 Melbourne success.

"Right now I feel emotionally fresh, which I think was the problem in the past in Grand Slams," said Gauff, who can become the fourth American woman to win the U.S. Open in this century after Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens.

"There's still a lot of tennis left to play. I'm still in the mindset that I'm in the beginning of the tournament. Before I'd think close to the end, but right now I have the mentality that I still have another two weeks to play."

Czech Muchova is also gunning for a first Grand Slam title after coming close in Paris in her bid to join an elite list of compatriots that includes Jana Novotna, Petra Kvitova, Barbora Krejcikova and Vondrousova.

The 27-year-old, who has defeated big names like Karolina Pliskova and Ash Barty at previous majors, resurrected her career after abdominal and ankle injuries in 2022 and is confident she has the mental toughness to succeed.

"I'm just trying to keep things pretty easy and not put much expectation on me," Muchova said. "I always feel I'm a pretty tough cookie in life. That helps with tennis. But yeah, some days are better; some days not.

"But I always try to keep a clear mind and be relaxed and enjoy the sport, just the basics." REUTERS