She may not have been expecting to win the tournament but Serena Williams certainly did not contemplate losing to the World No 116 Shelby Rogers, who stunned the No 1 seed on Friday in the quarter-finals at the Top Seed Open presented by Bluegrass Orthopaedics in Lexington, Kentucky.
It’s every kid’s dream when they are growing up watching her play and to be able to do something like that. Weird circumstances. Weird setting. But a win is a win. I know we’re all just happy to be playing. Shelby Rogers
For Rogers, it was one of the biggest wins of her career when she came from behind to topple Williams, 1-6 6-4 7-6(5) after it looked as if the No 1 seed would make quick work of her.
In the rain-delayed surprising encounter that went down to the wire, Williams romped through the first set in just 26 minutes but Rogers kept her composure and turned the first meeting between the two big hitting Americans into a slugfest.
“It’s every kid’s dream when they are growing up watching her play and to be able to do something like that,” said Rogers, who has yet to get used to the unfamiliar surroundings as the event is being played without any fans in attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Weird circumstances. Weird setting. But a win is a win. I know we’re all just happy to be playing.”
The stunning result continues a sterling run this week for the former Top 50 player and 2016 Roland Garros quarter-finalist, who missed over a year of action in 2018 and 2019 due to knee surgery, and was unranked at one point last year.
“Six months after surgery, I didn’t think I was going to be able to play again, ever,” said Rogers. “I’m pretty thankful to gain that perspective after going through that, and be grateful to be on the court competing again.”
Williams was hoping to get into top form ahead of the US Open, which starts on 31 August, and will see this as a setback, having been stretched to three sets in all three of her matches this week, and the 38-year-old has plenty of work to do if she is to fulfil her dream of winning that elusive 24th Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows.
“I could play a lot better, I think that’s the main thing I can take from this match,” Williams said. “I made it difficult on myself by making a plethora of unforced errors.”
A three-hour rain delay postponed the start of the match, but Williams was initially unfazed by the uncertain schedule and was dominant in the opening set, winning 10 of her 13 first-service points, never facing a break point, and snagging all of 6 points where Rogers was forced to hit a second serve.
Rogers turned the tables in the second, cutting down on her unforced errors to hang with Williams, and neither player was troubled on serve through 4-4, which proved the turning point.
“I changed the way I was playing a little bit in the second and third [sets],” said Rogers. “I was missing too much in the first, going for too much.
“I just tried to, honestly, make balls in the second. I don’t think anybody’s really playing their best tennis right now, so it’s just really finding a way to win, get one more ball back in.”
Another routine service hold by Rogers for 5-4 ended up reaping her rewards in the next game, as a netted backhand by Williams gave the unseeded player her first 2 break points of the match, which doubled as set points.
An ace by Williams and a missed return by Rogers drew the game back to deuce, but an excellent passing winner by Rogers gave her a third chance to steal the set as she got the break after a forehand miscue by the top seed.
Rogers continued her momentum into the final set, holding to love, then using an overpowering return to reach break point in the very next game.
Williams, however, steeled herself to eke out the hold, slamming an ace in the final point and there were no more break points in the remainder of the set.
A winning lob by Rogers gave her a 6-5 lead, but typically superb serving by Williams helped her prolong the match and garner a hold for 6-6, queuing up the pivotal tiebreak.
While Williams built an initial 3-1 lead in the breaker, Rogers claimed 4 straight points to go ahead 5-3 and although a top seed forehand winner kept her in the hunt, a netted backhand by the World No 9 gave Rogers double match point.
Rogers missed a service return on her first chance, but on the second, it was Williams who fired the return long, and she wrapped up an incredible upset win to advance to the semi-finals where she will play Switzerland’s Jil Teichmann in the final four.
Teichmann, who won her first two WTA singles titles last year on the clay courts of Prague and Palermo, reached the semi-finals of a WTA hardcourt event for the first time after defeating Catherine Bellis earlier on Friday, 6-2 6-4.
The Swiss needed 7 match points to get past Bellis.
When she served for the victory at 5-3 in the second set, she was one point from winning a half-dozen times in that game, but couldn’t convert, and Bellis eventually broke on her fourth chance, but in the next game, Teichmann ended things when the American put a forehand into the net.
“That,” Teichmann said, “was tough mentally.”
In the other quarter-final of the day, 16-year-old Coco Gauff battled back to defeat Tunisian Ons Jabeur 4-6 6-4 6-1 and will next face fellow American Jennifer Brady.
Brady moved into her second semi-final of the season after a straight-set victory over Marie Bouzkova, 6-1 6-2, continuing her brilliant run this week.
The World No 49 won her first two matches in straight sets, and it was more of the same against the Czech, as the American sailed to victory in the first meeting between the two, closing out victory in an hour and 4 minutes.
“I think I wasn’t expecting to go barely an hour in each match, but I think the way I’m playing, I’m playing pretty aggressive, playing smart, playing well,” Brady said, during her post-match press conference. “I definitely earned the wins that I’ve had, and I’m happy to be in the semi-finals.”
It is the second semifinal of the season for the rising American, who reached the final four at Dubai by beating three Top 20 players before falling to eventual champion Simona Halep.
Her strong form continued in the quarter-final victory over World No 48 Bouzkova in which she won a whopping 84 percent of points on her first serve, which included 6 aces.
“I think from the very first point of the match, I came out confident, knowing the game plan, executing the game plan from the start all the way to the very end,” said Brady. “I’m really happy with my performance today.”
Brady breezed through the opening frame, cracking open a commanding 4-0 lead after converting her first 2 break points.
Although Bouzkova clawed a break back to get on the scoreboard, the American quickly reclaimed her double-break advantage in the very next game and rode out the set in half an hour.
Brady kept her roll going in the second, going up 3-0, a double-break advantage Bouzkova could not repair, but she did avert the bagel by holding at 4-0, and the Czech went one step further as she found her forehand in the nick of time to claim another service hold and pull to 5-2.
Exceptional serving by Brady quickly pulled her to triple match point and while her first two chances were squandered, Bouzkova missed her backhand return long on the third, giving Brady the comprehensive win.
Brady’s next hurdle is fellow American, 16-year-old Coco Gauff, who rallied from a set and a break down to beat Ons Jabeur and seal the fourth and final semi-final spot in Lexington.
Two games from defeat, the teenager orchestrated a thrilling victory after trailing 6-4, 4-2 against the No 8 seed from Tunisia and facing a break point for 5-2, pulling off a gripping comeback to seal a spot in her second career semi-final, 4-6 6-4 6-1.
Winning 4 straight games to send the match the distance, Gauff won the last 5 games of the contest to finish the 1-hour, 58-minute victory with a flourish.
“I’m always going to fight, no matter what, and try my best, no matter the score,” Gauff said after the match. “The biggest thing was mentality.
“Even though I wasn’t playing the way I would’ve liked, I think staying strong and positive definitely kept me in the match today.
“The more matches I have, the more experience I get. The more different types of playing styles that I get to play against, the more I’ll get used to that kind of style and how to approach the match.
“I would say I’ve exceeded my expectations, not so much the result but playing-wise. Getting as many matches as I can is the goal right now… I like playing under pressure and pressure is a privilege.
“I just enjoy it, and the tough matches are what make tennis fun, so I try my best to just rise to the occasion.”
In the early stages, Gauff was a step behind Jabeur’s variety, as the Tunisian showed off all the shots in her arsenal over the course of the match’s first half-hour.
Gauff’s effectiveness in returning the Tunisian’s serves grew over the course of the match, thanks in part to the fact that Jabeur’s first serve began to misfire.
The No 8 seed served 8 aces for the match, 5 of them in the opening set, in which she never faced a break point, but she then struggled with her consistency on that shot, which included missing all but 3 first serves in her 3 service games in the final set.
Gauff created a staggering 13 break point chances for herself across sets two and three, and converted on 5 in all to set up a meeting against Brady.
“We’ve practiced together either last year or a year-and-a-half ago, a couple of times. She obviously has a heavy ball and a good serve, and she’s going to take her chances,” Gauff assessed of Brady, whom she’s never played.
“I’m just looking forward to it, to be able to play and to get a different playing style than today. I know she likes her forehand, so we’ll see what happens.”