It took everything Serena Williams had to advance to her 14th US Open semifinal on Wednesday.
She needed three sets for the third straight match, more than 2 hours, 20 aces and her rarely used left hand on two returns for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over the resurgent Tsvetana Pironkova.
Williams let out a deep exhale when it was over and she had escaped yet another close call.
“Listen, I’m happy to be standing here talking to you because at one point, I think I was pretty close to not being here,” she said to Rennae Stubbs during her postmatch interview. “So keep fighting, and that’s one thing that I’m super excited about is I never give up, and I just got to keep going.”
As a 23-time major champion, Williams has rarely had to fight for matches the way she has this fortnight. In her runs to the 2018 and 2019 US Open finals, as well as the title matches at Wimbledon the same years, she had five three-setters in four events combined.
Although it has been uncommon for Williams to need the extra set during a Grand Slam run, it isn’t exactly unprecedented. If the past is an indication, it could be a very good sign as she presses onward in her quest to tie Margaret Court’s 24 major titles.
Williams most recently needed three consecutive three-setters at a major during the 2015 French Open — and she won the title, marking her third career championship at Roland Garros. This US Open marks the sixth time that Williams has won at least three matches that went to a deciding set at a Slam, and she won the title in each one.
With history on her side, Williams is two matches away from cementing her spot in the record books. She lost her four previous major title appearances, despite dominant performances leading into the finals, and we will soon find out if those tests prepared her for the toughest of opponents down the stretch in New York. For her part, she says she’s prepared to play for as long as it takes.
“It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish, right?” Williams said. “I definitely agree. I feel like [in] some of these matches, you know, you’re playing Serena, so it’s like, close your eyes and hit as hard as you can, and it doesn’t matter. So I kind of have to adjust to that.
“I start to adjust to that later on. Because I’m like, ‘OK, Serena, now you know what’s going to happen.’ So now I just have to go [into] matches knowing that this is going to happen and just kind of adjust to that earlier as opposed to later. I just feel like, I’m OK. I’m ready to play three sets every match if I have to. It doesn’t matter. A win is a win.”
Heading into the US Open, the 38-year-old had played six consecutive three-set matches — the longest streak of her career. She won her first two matches at the tournament against Kristie Ahn and Margarita Gasparyan in straight sets but has been pushed to the distance ever since. In the third round, she struggled early against fellow American and 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens.
After a sluggish start and dropping the first set 2-6, she regrouped during the break and won the next two sets 6-2, 6-2.
“Obviously, she raised her level, and she started serving a bit better,” Stephens said of Williams after her loss. “She just played better today.”
In the Round of 16, Williams took on No. 15 seed Maria Sakkari, who beat her in three sets in the Western & Southern Open in August. Williams started strong but lost the second set in a tiebreak. When she went down 2-0 in the deciding set, Williams found another gear and won the next three games, never giving Sakkari an opportunity to get back in the match.
Like Stephens, Pironkova saw Williams’ level dramatically rise as the match progressed Wednesday and felt her take over in the final set.
“Definitely the first set, I think, I was in control of the match,” Pironkova said. “I was doing all kinds of shots, and everything went in my way. But, you know, I was expecting it’s not going to last forever. I was expecting that she’s going to try different things, and she’s going to put more power in her shots, and that’s what she did.
“Her serve, obviously it’s [an] incredible weapon in tennis terms. There were a lot less unforced errors in the second set. And in the third set it was, like, no errors at all.”
Williams will next face either former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, whom she beat in the US Open final in 2012 and 2013, or No. 16 seed Elise Mertens on Thursday in the semifinal. It will be a tricky opponent for Williams either way. Two-time major winner Azarenka has returned to vintage form following a title at the Western & Southern Open, knocking off fifth-seeded Aryna Sabalenka in straight sets in the second round and rallying against No. 20 seed Karolína Muchová in three sets in the fourth round. Mertens has yet to drop a set all tournament, and she upset No. 2 seed and reigning Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin on Monday.
As both players are playing so well, there will be considerably less room for error for Williams, and it would likely be a significant challenge to rally after a slow start. Williams admitted that she needs to play better from the start going forward.
“I just gotta be a little bit better, really,” she said after her win Wednesday. “And just expect people to go lights-out and just be ready for lights-out.”