Serena Williams hasn’t taken her eyes off the prize.
The American continued her breathtakingly dominating run at the US Open by beating world No 5 Elina Svitolina 6-3, 6-1 in the semi-final on Thursday evening. It’s been the kind of streak that is once again making her quest for the 24th singles Grand Slam title inevitable.
This will be the fourth final Williams has made since returning to the tour after giving birth to daughter Olympia in September 2017. And she hasn’t looked more ready to equal Margaret Court’s tally for the most singles majors.
Having set the tone with a 6-1, 6-1 victory over supposed rival Maria Sharapova in 59 minutes in the opening round of the US Open, Williams has rarely looked fallible. In the six matches so far, she has dropped only one set, against American teenager Caty McNally. But the 38-year-old has run through more established opponents, and made a mockery of the quarter-final, beating China’s Qiang Wang 6-1, 6-0 in 44 minutes.
Her semi-final opponent, Svitolina, knew fully well what she was in for. The 24-year-old Odessa native had played against Williams five times before this and had only one victory, at the 2016 Rio Olympics, to show. The Ukrainian, who was the highest seed left in the women’s field, is enjoying the brightest phase of her Grand Slam career, making her second successive Grand Slam semi-final.
Early on, Svitolina had a fleeting chance of making the match competitive. She held three break points in the opening game and three more in the fifth. While Svitolina lacked the nerve to grab them, Williams, sporting a black bodysuit, stepped up a level.
Williams’ determination to wrest control was evident, particularly in the fifth game when she was down 0-40. She started the comeback with a 107mph wide serve. At 15-40, Williams ditched the safety of the baseline and barged in behind a big serve to put away the volley. She fired a forehand winner to take it to deuce and went 4-1 up after dumping a ball that sat mid-court for a backhand winner.
The Ukrainian was left to rue lost opportunities, especially since Williams had struck early. On her very first service game, which went to six deuce points and lasted more than nine minutes, Svitolina had fought hard to save three break points. But Williams fired two backhand winners to open up a 2-0 lead.
Going into the match, Svitolina’s strategy had been running down as many balls as she could, testing Williams’ movement and making her play that extra ball. But the Ukrainian’s strokes just didn’t have enough on them to push Williams out of her comfort zone. The American, serving 10mph faster than her opponent on an average, won two of her service games in the first set at love. She sealed the set at 6-3 as Svitolina failed to keep in a 116mph serve down the middle.
“You are playing in front of the best tennis player in the world,” Svitolina said. “If you don’t take it, she just grabs it and there’s no chance to take it back.”
Bruised by those early exchanges, Svitolina despaired in the second set. Across the net, Williams was hitting her stride. Even though she is one of the most aggressive players on the tour, the American played great defence in the third game, picking up a backhand from behind her, and still putting enough mustard on it to push Svitolina on the back foot. Williams’ home crowd starting cheering for her in the middle of the point that finally ended with Svitolina missing on the 14th shot of the rally. In fact, on the day, of the 13 points that went to nine shots or more, Williams won 10.
Having taken a 2-1 lead in the second set, Williams ran away with the match. She showed her full range in the fifth game, in which she broke the Ukrainian at love. At 0-15, Williams attempted a drop shot out of the blue, even though Svitolina chased it down, the American guided a backhand past her gasping opponent. On the next point, when Svitolina tried a drop shot, Williams raced in, and picked up the ball for an angled forehand winner. With the American moving better than she has since her comeback, there was no corner on the court truly safe for her opponent.
“I felt more prepared this tournament,” said Williams. “Wimbledon I probably had a week to prepare, so that was amazing. Australia, I was super prepared. I did great, then rolled my ankle. I shouldn't have even played the French Open. That was just a bonus just to compete in another Grand Slam.”
Svitolina was quickly losing steam and hope. One of the fastest players on the tour, the Ukrainian was just about getting to Williams’ powerful strikes, but her short balls proved the perfect fodder for the 23-time champion. Just how crushed the 24-year-old was, was evident when she opened up the court on two successive occasions on Williams’ serve in the sixth game. But with the whole court at her disposal she missed both the shots, letting the American edge 30-0 ahead.
Six-time Open champion Williams won that game and then earned a second match point on Svitolina’s serve by winning an 18-shot rally. Williams smacked a backhand down the line winner to close the match out in 70 minutes.
This victory saw Williams equal Chris Evert’s record of 101 match wins at the US Open. More importantly, 20 years since she won her very first Grand Slam (1999 US Open), Williams is back in the finals, and on the brink of major history. She missed her chance of drawing level with Court, losing two Wimbledon finals and a particularly hurtful, and controversial, title clash against Naomi Osaka at the US Open last year. The American will have her eye on the prize when she takes on 19-year-old US Open debutant Bianca Andreescu in the final.
“I don’t think about the numbers,” said Williams after making her 33rd major final. “I just come out here and do as well as I can. Been here for 20 years – and still here.”
Updated Date: Sep 06, 2019 12:50:39 IST