Serena’s latest path to US Open final fueled by a focused intensity

There were no “Come on!” yells, triumphant jumps or arms raised above her head in victory. There was no need.

Instead, Serena Williams loosely clinched her left fist and flashed a small smile as she walked to the net to shake Elina Svitolina‘s hand while the crowd stood in a warm ovation. The 37-year-old had advanced to her 10th US Open final behind a dominant 6-3, 6-1 win over the fifth-ranked player in the world in just over an hour. Serena looked pleased but not satisfied.

Not yet.

She has one more match to go before she can really celebrate. It will be her fourth major final in the past six Grand Slams, and, she hopes, the first victory.

With the pressure of tying Margaret Court’s long-standing record of 24 Grand Slam titles, Williams has struggled in the biggest matches with the most on the line since returning to the WTA Tour after the complicated childbirth of her daughter Alexis Olympia in September 2017. It’s certainly an accomplishment to reach a championship match, but to be one win away so many times has to be devastating. Each loss seems to make the next title shot a little more difficult, the mental hurdle a little harder to overcome.

But this tournament looks as if it could be different.

“I think this is by far the best Serena has looked since coming back,” said 21-time Grand Slam doubles champion and ESPN analyst Pam Shriver on Thursday. “Caty McNally threw her off in the second round with her different style of play, but she found a way to adjust and switch gears to win. And then what she did in the quarterfinals was out of this world. She is ready to win, and I think has set herself up at this point to have a better chance to do that than anyone else.”

Williams has looked laser-focused throughout the tournament and is arguably playing her best tennis since before her pregnancy. She beat longtime foe Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-1 in her much-hyped opener, dropped a set against 17-year-old McNally in the second round before taking control, and then recorded routine straight-sets victories over Karolina Muchova and Petra Martic before a 44-minute rout of Wang Qiang in the quarterfinals to set up the meeting with Svitolina in the semis.

“She has unbelievable strength,” said Svitolina after their semifinal match. “She gives lots of power. There’s lots of power behind her shots all the time. That’s what makes her [an] unbelievable, legendary tennis player.

“On the important moments, she steps up, always steps up, always brings her best game.”

Despite her string of impressive play, Williams has gone somewhat under the radar over the past two weeks in New York, thanks to a bevy of interesting players and storylines. That is, as much as a player of her magnitude can do such a thing.

Make no mistake, Williams’ matches have all been must-see events at Arthur Ashe Stadium, and she’s been considered a contender from the start. But she hasn’t dominated the headlines or the highlights thanks to CocoMania, big-name upsets and bad on-court behavior. Instead, while Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, two of her closest cohorts in tennis, and Naomi Osaka, her opponent in the 2018 US Open final, fell early, Williams stood strong. In a sea of new faces, only she and Rafael Nadal remain.

It’s not often Williams isn’t the focal point of every tournament at this point in her esteemed career. It comes with the territory when someone is chasing history, as she has been for the past several years. She won her last major while pregnant at the 2017 Australian Open, and she’s been trying to reclaim her spot at the top of the sport ever since.

“She’s been to three finals now looking for No. 24. So we’ve been talking about it on every platform for so long now, you can only talk about it so much,” Shriver said. “Of course there’s still a lot to say about it, but there have been plenty of other great things to talk about. Storylines are rich here, and they are shared. So that has taken the spotlight off of her a bit, and maybe even some of the external pressure, but it doesn’t change the pressure she puts on herself and how badly she wants to win this.”

Williams made her return at Indian Wells in 2018 to great fanfare, and fans and casual observers watched in awe as she fought off the rust to advance to the finals at Wimbledon and the US Open. She lost in both — to Angelique Kerber at the All England Club and to Osaka in a highly controversial, still much-discussed match at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Williams opened 2019 with a quarterfinal run in Australia before hurting her ankle and ultimately falling to Karolina Pliskova. She then struggled with a knee injury, retiring during matches at her next three tournaments (Indian Wells, Miami and the Italian Open). Still dealing with the same injury, she lost in the third round to fellow American Sofia Kenin at the French Open. Despite earlier indications she would play in a smaller grass-court tuneup tournament leading into Wimbledon, she didn’t play again until the year’s third Grand Slam.

At Wimbledon, she partnered with local favorite Andy Murray in the most celebrated mixed doubles draw in some time and had a well-timed and news-making Harper’s Bazaar cover released in the second week. The result? Williams was virtually everywhere on a daily basis and the talk of the tournament. She backed up the attention with stellar play and made it back to the final.

With all eyes on her, and a chance to tie Court in the record books yet again, Williams took on Simona Halep in the final. Again, Williams struggled on the sport’s biggest stage, and she took the runner-up trophy for the second straight year in a lackluster 6-2, 6-2 match that lasted under an hour.

“I don’t know,” she said after the loss when asked about what she needed to do to win another major title. “I just have to figure out a way to win a final. Maybe playing other finals outside of Grand Slams would be really helpful just to kind of get in the groove so by the time I get to a Grand Slam final I’m kind of used to what to do and how to play.

“I just think that I just have to just keep going, you know, keep trying, keep working, maybe be able to play some tournaments uninjured, like I did with this one. Just keep moving forward.”

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Serena Williams reflects on her semifinal win over Elina Svitolina and discusses her opportunity to match Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slam title record.

Williams did her best to get healthy and signed up to play in Toronto and Cincinnati ahead of the US Open. She made it to the final in Toronto, taking on hometown favorite and her opponent in Saturday’s final, Bianca Andreescu, before retiring with back pain. Although she was upset in the moment and was forced to withdraw from Cincinnati, she was still pleased with the result and credits it for her preparation for Queens.

“I joked I trained more for Canada than I did for any other tournament this year, which was kind of funny,” said Williams after her win Thursday. “I felt more prepared this tournament. I mean, 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. I just feel like I actually had time to train [this time].”

Now having done most of the stops on the tour previously and having adjusted to life on the road with a young child, Williams feels more comfortable with her daily schedule than she perhaps did last year. She makes sure to do normal activities with Olympia on her off-days, including a trip to a trampoline park this week. She says that has helped her stay calm throughout the tournament.

“I think being on the court is almost a little bit more relaxing than hanging out with a 2-year-old that’s dragging you everywhere,” she said with a laugh. “I think that’s kind of been a little helpful.”

Whether it’s her improved health and fitness, or her understanding of her new routine, or just more match experience than last year, it’s clear Williams is feeling more confident. Twenty years after winning her first title at the US Open, she has a chance to win there again and cement her spot in history.

She’s not a 17-year-old anymore (although her opponent isn’t much older), and there is a lot more at stake than there was then, but her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said he believes she’s in a much better spot than she was in previous recent finals. Although he knows the real test is on Saturday.

“Clearly the goal is not to lose in the final,” he said earlier this week. “It happened three times. My opinion on that is that clearly a final is not a match like any other. I know she’s played a lot in her life, but still, there is a special emotion in a final, especially when you’re supposed to win, and when you are called Serena you are supposed to win all the time. …

“That’s why I thought that it was very important for her to get back again to her best shape to have the movements, because when you’re able to move well, even if you don’t hit the ball the way you want, you can still put the ball in play, rally and slowly but surely get your rhythm back. And also you have other options.”

Now, as the attention shifts back to Williams ahead of the US Open final, she has to find a way to deal with all of the pressure and expectations, from the public and from herself. She offered few clues about how she will improve upon her three disappointing results when she was talking to the media Thursday, but maybe she’s trying to stay as sequestered as she can for as long as she can. It has worked out pretty well so far.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t really thought much about it, to be honest. I just knew I need to work harder, just do better.”