Just a few moments after she won her quarter-final against Karolina Pliskova on Tuesday, Serena Williams reminded the US Open crowd how she has had a “rough couple of semis” on Arthur Ashe stadium, which is why she’s looking no further than her next opponent.
“Rough” is an accurate description.
Williams’ record at the US Open is quite remarkable. She has now made nine semi-finals in her last nine appearances at the tournament (didn’t participate in 2010 and 2017). She is a six-time champion in New York and is 94-11 win-loss here.
She’s the only player to ever contest 100 matches on Arthur Ashe stadium – the event’s iconic centre court – and has only lost before the quarter-finals three times since her tournament debut 20 years ago.
Still, Williams knows that her last two trips to the US Open, prior to this fortnight, have ended in heartbreak. In 2015, she was going for the calendar-year Grand Slam in New York, looking to become the first player to pull of that feat since Steffi Graf in 1988. Williams had won the previous four majors and her fifth in a row would have seen her equal Graf’s historic accomplishment. The heavy favourite for the US Open crowd that year, Williams was stunned by Italian Roberta Vinci in the semi-finals and wouldn’t play another match for the rest of the season.
The following year, Williams again lost in the semis, this time to Pliskova. The American made sure that wouldn’t be the case in their quarter-final on Tuesday though. She avoided going a double-break down in the opening set, and fought back to defeat Pliskova 6-4, 6-3 and set up a last-four meeting with Latvian No. 19 seed Anastasija Sevastova.
It gave Williams her 14th consecutive Grand Slam quarter-final victory. She confidently served out the match by hitting three aces and an overhead smash.
“It’s remarkable, she can count on it when she needs it the most,” said ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez of Williams’ serve.
It’s hard to believe that just one year ago, Williams had just delivered her baby, Olympia, and was going through serious post-delivery complications.
She’s now made back-to-back Slam semi-finals since she returned from her maternity leave, and is two match wins away from Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 majors.
“I’d been a couple steps away at the last Grand Slam, so I’m definitely not ahead of myself,” said Williams, who lost the Wimbledon final to Angelique Kerber in July.
“I still know that no matter whether I’m in the semi-finals or the finals, I have a really long way to go to win that. Again, that proved to be true at Wimbledon. I’m just taking it one at a time literally.”
After a rocky, error-strewn start against Pliskova on Tuesday, Williams raised her level, producing an all-around clutch performance. Her fluid movement particularly stood out, along with her serving.
“I feel like that’s one thing I really worked on was my moving because it was a little suspect right after my return. I know that I’m fast when I want to be. I can get any ball that I want to, if I want to. I still feel that way,” said Williams.
Standing between her and the final is Sevastova, who has her own stunning comeback story, having retired from the sport in 2013, aged 23, and returned a couple of years later. She’s the first Latvian woman to reach the US Open semis and is braced for a tough first encounter with Williams.
Pliskova believes Williams is closer to the title than anyone else though.
“For sure [she can win the title], because she won it before. I felt like she was playing pretty good actually the beginning, but maybe she was a little bit nervous. I don’t know. Just not play the best in the beginning. I know she can be off, she can do mistakes. She can also quickly be back in the match with couple games or couple shots. She can hit unbelievable shots. She can hit three aces in a game easily,” said the Czech, who was the last remaining top-10 seed in the draw.
“Also on the return I felt pretty pressured from her. She was just going into it guessing my serves right. She was covering my best serves I felt like very good. I feel like she has a big chance [to win the US Open] because the players which stayed [left in the draw], I feel like she can beat all them.”
Juan Martin del Potro came through a tight battle with top American John Isner 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2 in sweltering conditions on Tuesday to reach the semi-finals of the US Open.
The 2009 champion fought off Isner in a 3hr 31min showdown and joked after the match about how tough it was playing through the heat.
Both players went off-court for a 10-minute break after the third set, since the extreme heat policy was in effect, and Del Potro was asked during his on-court interview what he did during that time.
“I took a shower, re-taped my ankles, and I didn’t want to come out again,” the world No. 3 said with a laugh.
He added during his press conference: “I think I played very solid this game. In particular I made good returns every service games. I had a lot of chances to break. I did couple of times during the game. I think I play on a smart game today. I saw John a little bit tired also. That’s give me a little bit more energy to keep trying.
“I played a good match. I don’t know if I’m playing my best tennis ever, but I’m feeling good. I reach another semi-finals in this Grand Slam, which means something big to me. I’m very happy for that.”
Isner, who now trails Del Potro 4-8 head-to-head, explained what makes Del Potro such a tough opponent to face.
“He’s so good, and especially when he gets control of the point, of course on his forehand side, he doesn’t miss that shot very often, if at all,” said Isner.
“He’s such a tough player and he’s playing well and he likes these conditions. He likes playing on a hard court like this. Yeah, I mean, again, when he gets control of the point, it’s very tough to wrest it back from him. Yeah, that’s what he does so well, and I think he’s exhibited that throughout this whole tournament. He’s been playing very well.”
Here are some stats and figures to put Del Potro’s victory into context…
2 – consecutive US Open semis for Del Potro.
3 – career US Open semi-finals reached by Del Potro (2009, 2017-18).
4 – wrist surgeries undergone by Del Potro (3 on his left one, 1 on his right).
6 – Grand Slam semi-finals made by Del Potro throughout his career (FO 2009, 2018; Wimbledon 2013; US 2009, 2017-18).
8 – Del Potro faced a mere eight break points through his five matches played so far this US Open. Saved three and dropped serve five times.
9 – victories for Del Potro over world No. 1s (lost 13), the most wins among all players who have never been ranked No. 1 themselves. He could face world No. 1 Rafael Nadal in Friday’s semi-finals.
12hr 16min – Time spent by Del Potro on court en route to the US Open semis.
34 – wins against just eight losses for Del Potro at the US Open.
42 – match wins for Del Potro in 2018, against 10 losses. He’s inside the top four on the match win leaders list for the season.
66 – aces struck by Del Potro this US Open, third-most of all players entered in the main draw (behind Isner and Raonic), and most among players remaining in the tournament.
70% – Del Potro’s first-serve percentage this tournament, the highest among all players in the main draw.
71% – Del Potro’s success rate on net points this US Open (60/84).
83% – Del Potro’s winning percentage of points on his first serve, tied for second highest among players who have contested more than two main draw matches.
189 – winners struck by Del Potro this US Open, against 104 unforced errors.
* Stats via US Open match notes/IBM system
Anastasija Sevastova’s remarkable comeback story has taken her from retirement to the semi-finals of the US Open in less than four years.
Sevastova walked away from tennis in 2013 due to continuous struggles with injuries and illnesses but returned to the sport in 2015 and has been going from strength to strength ever since.
The 28-year-old, who made history on Tuesday, defeating Sloane Stephens 6-2, 6-3 to become the first Latvian woman to reach the US Open semi-finals, showcased incredible shot variety against the American, and stood her ground when she needed to.
It was a rematch of their US Open quarter-final from last year and it was Sevastova’s third straight appearance in the final-eight in New York.
“I think it was third time lucky. But if I would lose I would also be proud of myself. Three times quarters. It’s not happening every year or every day,” said Sevastova after her triumph.
“Tough loss last year. But every loss you learn something, and I was okay if we would play three sets. Yeah. I was also thinking about that match at 4-1 in the second set, but it happened. I was still proud of this match. I think it was a great match last year, and now look what happened now?”
Sevastova retired from tennis when she was 23 but the two-year break she took from tennis is now looking like a blessing in disguise. She has won two titles since her return, in Mallorca in 2017 and Bucharest this season, and hit a career-high ranking of 15 11 months ago.
She’s now one win away from being a Grand Slam finalist.
Anastasija Sevastova defeats Stephens 6-2, 6-3 to reach her first Grand Slam semifinal!
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 4, 2018
“I’m relieved that the match is over in this heat. Yeah, how do you feel? You feel happy. I think you need some time then to look, to look at this journey. It was an amazing journey, this three, four years,” said Sevastova.
“Right now you’re so in, you’re in the tournament, you’re playing next tournament next week, and you don’t feel it, you know. You think, oh, but in the end it’s amazing, yeah? You can’t believe, yeah. So after I stop at some point I will look at it and I will be proud of myself, for sure.”
Asked what kind of goals she set for herself when she decided to return to tennis, Sevastova said: “I had done not many goals. Maybe top 100. I was thinking, okay, maybe a couple of years, play top 100. Enjoy the game.
“But now, obviously when you win more, you have higher goals. And when you’re, like, winning a tournament, you think that’s normal. I can win it maybe next week again.
“But you have to appreciate it more, I think. You have to see that what you’re doing, it’s like a privilege here, yeah. So try to keep it low and try to, yeah, enjoy it.”