Serena Williams choked back tears as she contemplated the year-long journey that has taken her from fighting for her life in a hospital bed to the verge of history.
Williams overwhelmed Anastasija Sevastova 6-3, 6-0 to reach her 31st grand slam singles final. There she will face a first-timer 16 years her junior in Naomi Osaka, who grew up idolising the woman she must now try to beat.
Williams never expressed any doubt that she would return to the game following the birth of her daughter Olympia last September, but that seemed an awfully long way away when she developed life-threatening complications.
The 36-year-old said: “It’s really incredible. A year ago I was literally fighting for my life after I had the baby. Every time I step out on this court, I am so grateful I have an opportunity to play this sport. No matter what happens in any match – semis, final – I feel like I’ve already won.”
Williams has dropped only one set in the tournament and, although she was similarly dominant in getting to the Wimbledon final only to lose heavily to Angelique Kerber, she looks to have moved up several notches.
It was her net play that impressed the most against the wily Sevastova, a 28-year-old Latvian appearing in her first slam semi-final, who won the first two games and then only one of the next 13.
Williams came to the net 28 times and won 24 of the points, not giving her opponent a chance to disrupt her rhythm.
Frighteningly for the rest of the women’s game as Williams chases the title that would see her equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 slam singles crowns, she does not believe she is yet back to anything like her best.
Williams put her current level at only 50 or 60 per cent, and said: “I definitely don’t feel myself yet. My mom said it takes a full year to get back. I’m at a full year now. But I’m also playing a sport professionally.
“Even my body is different. I actually weigh less than I did before I got pregnant, but it’s distributed differently now.
“This is the beginning. I’m not there yet. I’m on the climb still. I just feel like not only is my future bright, even though I’m not a spring chicken, but I still have a very, very bright future. That is super exciting for me.”
Osaka spent the formative years of her childhood living in New York and first came to Flushing Meadows as a fan hoping to catch a glimpse of Williams.
Osaka was only a year old when Williams won her first slam title here in 1999. Now, 19 years later, she will try to become the first Japanese woman to win a grand slam singles title.
Osaka, 20, and Madison Keys, last year’s beaten finalist, are both players built in the same power mould as Williams but the most impressive thing about Osaka’s performance was the rest of her game and especially the poise she showed to save all 13 break points she faced.
Asked how she did it, she replied: “This is going to sound really bad but I was just thinking, ‘I really want to play Serena’.”
Her on-court message to Williams was simply: “I love you,” but Osaka insists she will not be happy simply to share the same stage on Saturday.
“Of course it feels a little bit surreal,” she said. “Even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a grand slam. Just the fact that it’s happening, I’m very happy about it.
“At the same time I feel like, even though I should enjoy this moment, I should still think of it as another match. I shouldn’t really think of her as my idol. I should just try to play her as an opponent.”
And as for how those dreams ended: “I don’t dream to lose, so… That’s how I’m answering your question.”
Rafael Nadal recovered from a first-set bagel to defeat Dominic Thiem and reach the US Open semi-finals following another late-night classic in New York.
Twenty-four hours after Roger Federer fell to John Millman, his old rival avoided following him out of the tournament, but only just, completing a 0-6 6-4 7-5 6-7 (4/7) 7-6 (7/5) victory at 2.03am.
Ninth seed Thiem became the first player since Andy Roddick in 2004 to win a love set against Nadal in New York but the defending champion once again dug deep to come out on top of a gruelling battle played in more punishing humidity.
Nadal will now face third seed Juan Martin del Potro, who defeated John Isner, in a repeat of last year’s semi-final.
Remarkably, Thiem was the first top-20 player Nadal has faced at Flushing Meadows since his final win over Novak Djokovic in 2013, with last year’s title seeing him take on a succession of unexpected opponents.
And Thiem, the only man to beat Nadal on clay for the last two seasons, set about showing his opponent he meant serious business in his first grand slam quarter-final outside of the French Open.
The Austrian blasted 13 winners, made only two unforced errors and allowed Nadal just seven points in winning an extraordinary opening set.
It was only the fourth time in his long grand slam history that Nadal had lost a set 6-0 and just the third time at any level in nearly seven years. But the last time, against Philipp Kohlschreiber in Miami last spring, he fought back to win the match.
Nadal’s ability to look only forward and forget what went before is one of his most important strengths and he set about turning around the match, closing in on the baseline, forcing Thiem to play one more ball and, eventually, to go for too much.
The Spaniard secured the break he wanted for 5-3 only to give it back but a sloppy game from Thiem, who turned 25 on Monday, handed him the set anyway.
The momentum was with Nadal but Thiem regrouped in the third set and began to again blast winners into the corners. But, as in the second set, when the time came to keep his foot on Nadal’s throat, he instead loosened the pressure and lived to regret it.
Thiem was broken serving for the set and then could not hold on for the tie-break, saving two set points but not a third after planting a volley wide with the whole of the court available.
The fourth set was a wild 81-minute ride that began with Thiem facing break points, saw the Austrian threaten a double break before being pegged back and then a weary Nadal miss a chance to win the match.
With Thiem serving at 5-6 30-30, a desperate lunging forehand looked to be easy pickings for Nadal at the net only for the 32-year-old to net it.
Thiem held on for the tie-break, where another unexpected Nadal error, this time a short forehand into the net, sent the match into a deciding set.
With the clock ticking towards 1am and transport options dwindling, many fans headed for the exits while the two adversaries battled on.
Having looked the more weary of the two, it was Nadal who was applying the greater pressure and at 5-5, 0-40 it seemed this was his chance. But Thiem saved all three break points before denying Nadal a fourth opportunity with a stunning volley at the end of a remarkable point.
That they were still able to produce tennis of such quality was astonishing. There was no let-up in the tie-break and, after four hours and 49 minutes, it was Nadal who claimed victory when Thiem sent a smash long.
The Austrian hung his head before being consoled by Nadal who then held his arms aloft in celebration and relief.
Australian Millman had been given barely a sniff before the match, with excitement already building for a quarter-final clash between Federer and Novak Djokovic at Flushing Meadows.
The 29-year-old, who had never previously beaten a top-10 opponent, appeared to have even less chance of winning with Federer a set and a break up and holding two set points, but he somehow clawed his way back to clinch a 3-6 7-5 7-6 (8/6) 7-6 (7/3) victory.
While Millman, ranked 55, produced the performance of his life, Federer gave one of his poorest displays on the big stage, struggling with all parts of his game and making 76 unforced errors.
The match did not finish until nearly 1am but the temperature was still around 30C with extremely high humidity.
Federer, perhaps looking and sounding his age, said: “I just thought it was very hot tonight. It was just one of those nights where I guess I felt I couldn’t get air. There was no circulation at all. For some reason I just struggled in the conditions. It’s one of the first times it’s happened to me.
“It’s uncomfortable. Clearly you just keep on sweating more and more and more and more as the match goes on. You lose energy as it goes by.
“But John was able to deal with it better. He maybe comes from one of the most humid places on earth, Brisbane. I knew I was in for a tough one. Maybe when you feel like that, as well, you start missing chances, and I had those. That was disappointing.
“But, look, at some point also I was just happy that the match was over, I guess.
“When you feel like that, everything is off. But I’ve trained in tougher conditions. I’ve played in the daytime at 120(F). Some days it’s just not the day where the body can cope with it.
“I do believe since the roof is on that there is no air circulation in the stadium. I think just that makes it a totally different US Open.
“I wish I could have led two sets to love and then maybe the match would be different and I would find a way. It was just tough. I thought John played a great match in difficult conditions.
“I’m happy I’m getting a rest now. Then I come back for the Laver Cup and hopefully finish the year strong.”
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) September 4, 2018
Millman is having the best year of his career having struggled with several injuries over the years, most seriously a shoulder problem in 2013. He spent part of the lay-off working for a friend’s finance company and wondering whether his tennis career was over.
Speaking on court, he said: “I’m probably in a bit of disbelief. I have so much respect for Roger and everything he’s done for the game, and he’s been a hero of mine. Today he was definitely not at his best, but I’ll take it.”
Millman joked the only time he expected to be playing on Ashe was a pre-tournament practice session with Andy Murray, but he is determined not to enjoy the achievement too much.
He said: “I’ll obviously remember this for a long, long time. I hope the people who are watching here and back home remember it, too. It’s extremely special. But hopefully I haven’t got a bullet in me yet, I can create a few more moments in my career.”
Earlier, Djokovic also struggled with the heat for the second time this tournament but came through a 6-3 6-4 6-3 victory over Joao Sousa relatively comfortably.
The other quarter-final in the bottom half of the draw will be a rematch of the 2014 final between Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori.
Nishikori defeated Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-3 6-2 7-5 while Cilic was a 7-6 (8/6) 6-2 6-4 winner against David Goffin.