Down a set and a break to the unseeded Tsvetana Pironkova in the quarterfinals of the United States Open, Serena Williams was in danger of succumbing to a story line even better than her own.
Pironkova is not only unseeded. She is unranked and was playing in her first tour event in more than three years.
Not even Williams, a 38-year-old master of the comeback, has taken it to that extreme.
Pironkova, 32, is a tall Bulgarian veteran with an iconoclastic game who changes rhythm more often than “Bohemian Rhapsody.” She gave birth to a son, Alexander, in April 2018 and was uncertain whether she wanted to return to the tour at all. She clearly made a sound career move, and on Wednesday was in range, if not quite on the brink, of her biggest victory before Williams came back to prevail, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.
“It just shows me how tough moms are,” said Williams, who has a 3-year-old daughter, Olympia. “Whenever you can give birth to a baby, honestly you can do anything. And I think we saw that with Tsvetana today.”
But only one working mother could win this match, and after Williams’s strong finish, she will meet another in Thursday’s semifinals, Victoria Azarenka.
Williams and Azarenka met in consecutive U.S. Open finals, in 2012 and 2013. Williams prevailed both times in three sets and leads their series, 18-4.
Williams and her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, once viewed Azarenka, who was ranked No. 1 for most of 2012 and part of 2013, as Williams’s biggest and most talented threat. Azarenka looked ready to climb back to the top when she beat Williams in the final of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in 2016, and then won the Miami Open, completing the so-called Sunshine Double.
But Azarenka was soon pregnant and off the tour, and she frequently struggled when she returned in 2017 after getting involved in a long-running custody dispute over her son, Leo, who is now 3.
She and Williams, who are friendly, exchanged visits and notes in 2017, shortly after Williams became pregnant and then left the tour herself. “I do hope she is coming back, and we can have some more of our battles,” Azarenka said in an interview that year. “Because she’s one of the people I can’t imagine the tour without.”
They have played each other only once since both returned to action, in a high-velocity duel in the second round at Indian Wells last year that Williams won, 7-5, 6-3. Azarenka remains convinced that Williams reserves her best tennis for their matches, but Azarenka has looked closer to her peak at this U.S. Open than Williams has, and she swept past the 16th-seeded Elise Mertens, 6-1, 6-0, on Wednesday night.
“Can it get any better? For me, it can’t,” Azarenka said of the upcoming semifinal. “I’m so excited about it. An amazing opportunity to play against a champion, someone I respect a lot who is my friend.”
Williams still has a chance to chase her dreams to the end of this U.S. Open, a tournament where the end has been bitter since she won her sixth singles title here way back in 2014.
The following year, she was tantalizingly close to a rare calendar-year Grand Slam only to be ambushed in the semifinals by Roberta Vinci, an Italian outsider who, like Pironkova, relied on guile more than pure power.
In 2018, Williams lost her cool with the chair umpire Carlos Ramos during a tumultuous defeat against Naomi Osaka in the final. Last year, Williams was again beaten in the final by a prodigiously talented newcomer, the Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu.
But to her considerable credit, Williams has continued to rebound from such deflating moments and to fight her way back to form and through major draws. This one has been rather kind so far, with no top 20 opponents: Quite a few of them were missing to begin with in this strange, pandemic-interrupted season. But Williams has still had to struggle, needing three sets to defeat Sloane Stephens, Maria Sakkari and now Pironkova.
Such tussles have become the rule. Since the tour restarted last month, eight of Williams’s 10 singles matches have gone the full, three-set distance. She is no longer as intimidating to the opposition or as unusual, with more women accustomed to big-power tennis.
But Williams is still here, just two rounds away from matching Margaret Court’s elusive record of 24 major singles titles.
“People always say you’re not to do something at a certain age, but with technology and time, we can kind of make that age a little longer,” she said.
Williams is 0-4 in Slam finals since returning to the tour in early 2018, several months after childbirth. To get a fifth opportunity, she will need to get past Azarenka. Williams, with her formidable serve clicking and a big head-to-head edge, will be the favorite, but she has not played consistently well enough to be the favorite in the tournament. Osaka, who will face the American newcomer Jennifer Brady in the semifinals, deserves that label as long as her hamstring injury does not resurface.
Williams’s victory over Pironkova did not appear to be as draining as some of her previous matches this summer, but it came at a dangerous time. Williams has had a day off between each of her matches at this U.S. Open, but she will not get that luxury for the semifinals.
Recovery will be critical. Her U.S. Open loss in 2016 came in a semifinal without a day of rest.
At least Williams played the early match on Wednesday, starting slowly as Pironkova sliced forehands, punched flat backhands, hit perfectly disguised lob winners and hustled into the corners to extend rallies and sow seeds of doubt in her more accomplished opponent.
“Definitely, I was feeling it a little in my legs,” Williams said. “For whatever reason, an hour in, I get more energy.”
But Williams, even without the same range or aura she has had in previous years, remains a supreme competitor and unmatched server. She smacked 20 aces on Wednesday, but she also got gritty and countered Pironkova’s unorthodox methods with some of her own. After getting bamboozled by Pironkova’s hard-to-read serve, Williams was twice forced to return with her non-dominant left hand, and twice won the point.
Williams got out of trouble repeatedly with big serves but, as the match progressed, also improved in how she coped with Pironkova’s unusual sliced forehand and low-bouncing shots. Williams needed to win several extended rallies to wrest control of the match, including a 24-shot exchange to break serve to 5-3 in the second set.
It was a sotto voce performance by Williams’s operatic standards. She was unusually restrained for much of the match, but she did find a way to tap into her reserves and turn up her inner fire. She is now 44-42 in Grand Slam singles matches when she loses the first set, an extraordinary history that makes her the only woman with more than 25 major matches to have a winning record in such instances.
”I’m happy to be standing here talking to you,” she said in an ESPN interview on court after the finish. “Because I think at one point I was pretty close to not being here. I keep fighting, and that’s something I’m super excited about. I never give up, and I have to keep going.”
She has told herself that before, in this latest phase of her brilliant career, and then faltered. Another chance looms this year, on a court without fans, a place where her memories are decidedly mixed.
Source: Tennis - nytimes.com