With another U.S. Open final in sight, and Grand Slam title No. 24 within reach, Serena Williams got past a slightly shaky start and quickly took control.
Williams turned in an increasingly impressive performance for a 6-3, 6-1 victory over No. 5-seeded Elina Svitolina of Ukraine in their semifinal at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday night.
This will be Williams’ fourth final in the past six major tournaments. She was the runner-up at Wimbledon each of the past two years, losing to Angelique Kerber in 2018 and to Simona Halep in July. And she was also the runner-up, of course, a year ago at Flushing Meadows, losing to Naomi Osaka.
That final was, and forever will be, overshadowed by Williams’ extended argument with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, who docked her a point, then a game — and was barred by the U.S. Tennis Association from officiating any matches in this year’s tournament involving her or her older sister, Venus.
So much of what Williams does nowadays must be seen through the prism of tennis history, and that was certainly the case this time. Her 101st career match win at Flushing Meadows tied Chris Evert’s tournament record.
“It’s just impressive, I guess,” Williams said. “I don’t think about it. I just come out here and do what I can.”
By getting to the final, Williams set a record for longest gap between first career Grand Slam title match and most recent such appearance: It’s almost exactly 20 full years since she won the 1999 U.S. Open as a teenager.
Most importantly, if she can beat No. 13 Belinda Bencic or No. 15 Bianca Andreescu in Saturday’s final, Williams will equal Margaret Court with 24 Grand Slam singles titles, the most in tennis history. Court, though, won more than half of hers against amateur competition before professionals were allowed to play in majors starting in 1968.
This was Williams’ 38th Grand Slam semifinal; she made it that far for the 10th appearance in a row at Flushing Meadows. And it was only the second time to the final four at a major for the 24-year-old Svitolina, who also got there at Wimbledon in July.
Right from the start, though, it was Svitolina who was steadier. She earned three break points in the opening game — but failed to convert one. In the second game, Svitolina went ahead 40-love — yet somehow got broken.
In all, Svitolina held eight-game points across that opening pair and was left with nothing to show for it. Quickly, it was 3-0 for Williams.
If it wasn’t as lopsided a performance as she put forth in a 6-1, 6-1 victory over Maria Sharapova in the first round or a 6-1, 6-0 win over Wang Qiang in the quarterfinals, it was pretty dialed-in.
She launched serves at up to 119 mph and saved all six break points she faced. She smacked three return winners in one game alone. She revved up some of the very best groundstrokes you’ll see at angles a pool shark would appreciate, to the tune of a 34-11 edge in winners. She sprinted this way and that, showing no trace of any sort of lingering effect from a rolled ankle earlier in the tournament.
As if for good measure, Williams even threw in a serve-and-volley approach while facing breakpoint at 3-1 in the first set — and, naturally, it worked, thanks to a swinging putaway.
“Don’t expect that again,” Williams said, joking that this was going through her mind: “What am I doing at the net?! Let me get back to the baseline!′
Maybe Svitolina, whose one upset of Williams in five previous matchups came at the 2016 Rio Olympics, was just a bit too passive, content to say way back and try to chase down everything sent her way.
Not the right approach. At least not against this opponent, in this match, on this day.
By no means was Williams perfect. She was awfully good, though, which was more than enough. It often is for her. Just hasn’t been in the three most significant matches of her comeback so far.
She’ll get another shot at it Saturday.
One more for 24.