For the third time at the US Open, Serena Williams was stretched to three sets to get herself through to the semi-finals and on Wednesday, it was against her fellow mother Tsvetana Pironkova.
I definitely wasn’t feeling it in my legs, but for whatever reason from an hour in I get more energy, and I guess that’s a good thing. I can’t keep doing that if I want to keep winning. I need to figure out how I start a match better. I think I was pretty close to not [winning], but I kept fighting and that’s what I’m most pleased about. Serena Williams
The Bulgarian took the opening set from Williams, who again started slowly, but the 6-time US Open champion prevailed, 4-6 6-3 6-2, after 2 hours 12 minutes in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“A match like today, I just feel like [Pironkova] was serving well, she was hitting winners everywhere,” Williams said in her post-match press conference. “Maybe I wasn’t being aggressive enough.
“So I think it’s, more or less me, adjusting my game in the second set, and coming back, and just trying to do better.”
The 38-year-old came through to make her 11th straight US Open semi-final, but it was far from easy.
Williams, who will draw level with Australian Margaret Court for most women’s singles Grand Slam titles, at 24, if she triumphs in New York, was made to work hard for her last-4 berth.
After Pironkova survived an opened service barrage from Williams, who slammed 3 aces in the opening game, but the 32-year old Bulgarian replied in turn, starting with an ace of her own before holding for 1-1 with a forehand passing winner.
More aces from Williams led to a hold for 2-1, but Pironkova remained unfazed as she held for 2-2 at love, now settled in and using her court craft to mix it up as the momentum shifted towards her.
She began to ease through the set, claiming her service games with minimal fuss, including a hold for 5-3 with an ace.
In the following game, Pironkova used 2 more superb backhands, one down the line and the other a lob, to garner 2 break points, which doubled as set points, but Williams bravely powered those chances away to hold for 5-4 and extend the set.
Pironkova did not flinch when serving out the set, cracking 2 strong serves in a row to grab 2 more set points, converting finally on her third to take a one-set lead with a winning crosscourt backhand.
In the second, Williams began to get a better read on the Bulgarian’s serve, but the slices and lobs continued to frustrate her into errors.
Pironkova broke again in the first game but Williams capitalised on her first break point opportunity to break straight back, and the momentum began to swing slowly in favour of the 3rd seed.
She broke again after a lung-busting rally to end the 8th game and hammered down 3 aces as she sealed the second set and forced her now almost customary decider.
With the forehand errors creeping in for a plainly exhausted Pironkova, Williams took control with an early break and repeated the feat to duly end her opponent’s gutsy effort and book her place in the last four.
Williams added: “I definitely wasn’t feeling it in my legs, but for whatever reason from an hour in I get more energy, and I guess that’s a good thing.
“I can’t keep doing that if I want to keep winning. I need to figure out how I start a match better. I think I was pretty close to not [winning], but I kept fighting and that’s what I’m most pleased about.”
Twice on serve, the American had to resort to left-handed returns, winning both points, which was to prove pivotal.
“I noticed the other day, I hit a lefty shot and I was just in practice being super intense, and I guess it came through in the match,” Williams smiled. “When you’re in a position like that, and I was just trying to stay, this is the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, and I was just trying to do everything I can whether righty or lefty.
Serving for the set, Williams slid behind 15-30, but the American extricated herself from that situation with 3 thunderous aces in a row to close out the game and level the match at one set apiece.
In the third, she had her ground stroke on point and broke immediately at the start. It was all she needed.
“I think that was definitely a really important game, because I was able to break her,” Serena said. “Although I was still holding serve, it would have been a different match serving at 5-4 as opposed to serving at 5-2. So it was really important.
Serena’s big serve also provided 20 aces.
“Sometimes when I’m serving, I just tell myself, I don’t care if my arm falls off, I’m going to keep serving,” she added. “And that’s the attitude I need to have
“ I didn’t know I hit 20 aces in this match until my coach told me after. So I was, like, Okay. For me it’s about serving the whole tournament.”
Not having played competitive tennis for over 3 years, it has been quite a return for Pironkova.
“Definitely the first set I think I was in control of the match. I was doing all kinds of shots, and everything went in my way,” Pironkova said. “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 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 was full of praise for the performance of fellow mother Pironkova, admitting: “It just shows me how tough moms are – when you can birth a baby then, honestly, you can do anything.
“I could barely win a match when I came back, so she’s incredible. You play a match and you go home and you’re still changing diapers. It’s like a double-life – it’s really surreal.”
With no day of rest, Williams will now meet good friend Victoria Azarenka on Thursday night.
Azarenka marches over Mertens
Azarenka blew past Elise Mertens 6-1 6-0 to reach her first major semi-final since the US Open in 2013 when she made the final.
“I felt today I really executed the game very precisely,” Azarenka said. “I was moving really well. I saw the ball very long. It was long on my racket. I saw it where I needed to see it. So I felt I played well.
“I found all the right answers to everything she was trying to make today and more, so I’m very happy with that today.”
Azarenka was virtually flawless against the Belgian Mertens, who came into the match having not lost a set.
Williams leads Azarenka 18-4 and 10-0 in Grand Slams.
“I love playing against Serena,” Azarenka said. “I think we have one of the best matches – at least that I played in my career – against her.
“We always played on big stages. It was a lot of big fights. She’s one of the players who push me to the limit, who makes me better. I’m excited for that.
“It’s been a while since we played. I think the last time was, what is it, Indian Wells.
“I think we both were not really playing well at that time. I think the semi-final of a Grand Slam is a different stage. It’s going to be a different fight. I’m looking forward to it.”
In the early match on Thursday, power-hitters Naomi Osaka and Jennifer Brady will do battle.
Both have been belting the ball all event, and the 25-year-old Brady has yet to drop a set in the tournament, and hasn’t even come close to losing one.
“I don’t feel like the favourite, weirdly enough,” Osaka said. “Because there’s no fans, I don’t feel anything.
“I just feel like I’m going into a match with a really talented player, which is all of my previous matches anyway.
“For me, I remember watching her. I watched her match against Putintseva earlier today. I know she’s a big threat.”