As the first Chinese mainland player to reach a US Open final, Xu Yifan is relishing her thrilling but strange route to history inside the tournament's bio-secure bubble in New York.
Even with international competitions canceled at home for the remainder of the year, Chinese tennis still has plenty to cheer about thanks to Xu's victory with her American doubles partner Nicole Melichar on Wednesday.
A nerve-jangling 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7) triumph over US pair Asia Muhammad and Taylor Townsend at an empty Louis Armstrong Stadium earned Xu her first Grand Slam final appearance.
Managing to achieve the breakthrough during a season badly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic has made her feat feel extra special.
"To be able to come here and still compete on the court of the US Open means so much to me," Xu, a No 3 seed in doubles, said after the three-set semifinal thriller, which lasted 2 hours and 8 minutes.
"Coming into the tournament I didn't have much expectation. Now I feel over the moon that I've made it into the final for the first time."
Outsized and often overpowered by their opponents, Xu and Melichar were broken six times by their US rivals. However, it was the American-Chinese tandem's bolder shot selection that prevailed, with Xu's sturdy return forcing an error from Muhammad to win match point in the tiebreaker.
"With Nikki hitting hard and heavy on the baseline while I am running up and down the court, we make a good combination," said Xu, who also made it to the doubles final at the Western & Southern Open with the same partner two weeks ago.
"We've been talking to each other since the end of last season to team up and it seems we worked it out pretty well."
With most of her compatriots opting out of the resumed tennis season due to coronavirus fears, Xu and singles ace Zhang Shuai are the only two Chinese players who made it to the US amid health risks and travel restrictions.
Aside from her deep run at Flushing Meadows, the experience of living in the so-called "bubble" environment, where frequent disinfection, testing and temperature checks are all part of daily life, has made her New York stay extra memorable.
"It's really a different experience. The stadiums and the hotel are the only two places you can go, whereas we used to hang out freely in the city every year during the tournament in the past," said the 32-year-old Tianjin native.
As part of the US Open's virus-control measures, players and their limited entourages are confined to the bubble, and can only move between the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and designated hotels, where lounges, coffee bars, outdoor food trucks, ping pong tables, gaming arcades and golf simulators offer downtime options.
"Everyone wears a mask while not playing or practicing, which makes it feel pretty safe," said Xu."We have a lot of amenities at the hotels such as an open-air lounge and a game zone, where we can relax. It's kind of fun."
Xu is now one victory away from her first major title after finishing runner-up in women's doubles at the 2019 Wimbledon (with Canada's Garbriela Dabrowski).
Standing in her way is the unseeded pair of Germany's Laura Siegemund and Russia's Vera Zvonareva, who stunned seventh seeds Victoria Azarenka and Sofia Kenin as well as defending champions Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka en route to Saturday's final.
"It's definitely going to be a tough match facing such an experienced team," Xu said. "For us, we just need to stick to playing how we know best and fight bravely without hesitation."