Serena Williams has dominated all over the world for the best part of two decades, but the US Open is where she enjoys her most consistent success. The 36-year-old American has reached the quarter-finals in her last 10 appearances here at Flushing Meadows and on Tuesday night earned a place in the semi-finals for the 12th time with a crushing 6-4, 6-3 victory over Karolina Pliskova.
On her 100th appearance in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Williams recorded her 94th victory at this tournament, which is just seven behind Chris Evert’s open era record. Williams, who has now won her last 14 Grand Slam quarter-finals in a row, has won 92 matches at Wimbledon, 81 at the Australian Open and 63 at the French Open.
Despite those remarkable statistics, however, it might have taken this latest victory to prove to Williams that she can make it back to the very top following her return to competition after a 14-month break to have her first baby.
This was the 23-times Grand Slam champion’s first victory over a top 10 opponent since she beat Johanna Konta in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open 19 months ago. Since beginning her comeback in March she had lost all three of her subsequent meetings with top 10 opponents – her sister Venus in Indian Wells, Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon and Petra Kvitova in Cincinnati.
Pliskova, the world No 8, was the last player to beat Williams here – in the semi-finals two years ago – and again made the early running, but the 26-year-old Czech was then swept aside by a torrent of brilliant shot-making by the six-times champion of New York.
Williams said it was “shocking” that this was her first victory over a top 10 opponent since her return and described it as “a really big step for me”. She said her previous defeats against top 10 players were down to a lack of matches.
“I'm getting those matches now," Williams said. "I was just so light on the matches. Now I feel like I'm at a level where I can play and try to compete against these amazing women in the top 10.”
She added: “I'm here to do my best. I don't have 10 more years, or at least I don't think so. I said that 10 years ago. I don't think I have another 10 years of having opportunities to be able to play and win championships. Every match really means a lot to me.”
In Thursday's semi-finals Williams will take on Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova, who secured a place in the last four of a Grand Slam event for the first time by beating Sloane Stephens, the defending champion, 6-2, 6-3. The defeats of Stephens and Pliskova mean that all of the top 10 seeds have now been knocked out of the tournament, as they were in the early stages at Wimbledon two months ago.
On another day of stifling heat and humidity which saw all junior matches suspended for two hours in the middle of the day, the conditions were still testing when Williams and Pliskova walked out on court at 7pm. The temperature was 32C while the humidity was at 50 per cent and rising.
Pliskova made the first break of the opening set in the third game and had three more break points two games later. Williams made plenty of errors in the opening stages but from 4-2 down she turned the match on its head by winning eight games in a row with a barrage of big shots that threw her opponent out of her stride.
At 4-0 in the second set Williams double-faulted twice as Pliskova finally stopped the rot. When the Czech then held to love for 2-4 and was 0-40 up in Williams’ next service game it seemed that the momentum might be shifting, but the American fought back and eventually closed out her victory in some style. Serving at 5-3, Williams hit three aces and a smash to win the game to love.
Williams is particularly pleased with the improvements in her movement. “One thing I really worked on was my moving because it was a little suspect right after my return,” she said. “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.”
Sevastova has a fine record here, having also reached the quarter-finals in 2016 and 2017. Her victory over Stephens reversed the result of their meeting at the same stage last year.
Stephens has been suffering with a sinus infection for the last two days and struggled from the start in the stifling heat and humidity.
While the American was unable to find her usual fluency, Sevastova was on her game from the start. The 28-year-old Latvian has a varied game that can unsettle opponents and Stephens never got to grips with her clever mix of spins and variations of pace. Her drop shots were a particularly potent weapon.
“It was very physical today,” Sevastova said afterwards. “It was tough to play. It's so hot. The first set was very important and I just kept fighting.”
Sevastova took two years out of the game between 2013 and 2015 in frustration at some persistent injuries, but has enjoyed her best years since her return. She won a grass-court tournament in Mallorca last summer and a clay-court title in Bucharest earlier this year. Currently No 18 in the world, she will make further progress up the rankings next week.
“These last three or four years have been an amazing journey,” Sevastova said. “I didn’t have many goals when I came back. I was thinking that maybe I could make the top 100 and enjoy the game for a couple of years.”
Stephens is set to drop five places in the rankings to No 8 next week but is proud of what she has achieved here this year.
“The fact that I made it to the quarter-finals and played some really good matches and I just competed as hard as I could, there's a lot to be proud of,” she said. “Defending a title is very hard. I'm not going to dwell on it. I’ll just keep building.”
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