Serena Williams was beaten 1-6 6-3 6-3 in the semi-finals of the US Open by Victoria Azarenka on Thursday, denying her the chance of winning a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles title on home soil this year.
Belarusian Azarenka will play Japan’s Naomi Osaka in her third final at Flushing Meadows on Saturday, having lost the previous two to Williams in 2012 and 2013.
Williams already was struggling to keep up in a fast-paced US Open semi-final when she stopped behind the baseline after a third-set point and leaned over. She held that pose for a bit, then clutched at her left ankle and asked for a trainer.
While Williams took a medical timeout for a tape job – her latest bid for a 24th Grand Slam singles title seemingly slipping away – her opponent, Victoria Azarenka, sat in a sideline seat, eyes closed, calm and composed as can be.
After a delay of about five minutes, action resumed, and while Williams raised the force of her shots and volume of her shouts, it was Azarenka who finished off victory to return to a major championship final for the first time since 2013.
“It’s been seven years? That’s my favourite number. I guess that’s meant to be. I’m very grateful for this opportunity,” said Azarenka who won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013 and lost to Williams in the US Open finals each of those two years.
“On the road to the final, you have to beat the best players and today was that day.”
The loss left Williams just short of No 24 yet again. She was beaten in the finals of four of the preceding seven Slams, including at Flushing Meadows in 2018 and 2019.
“I started really strong,” said Williams. “Then she just kept fighting. She just changed and started playing better and better. Maybe I took a little too much off the gas pedal at some point. She played really well.
“It’s obviously disappointing. At the same time, I did what I could today. I feel like other times I’ve been close and I could have done better. Today I felt like I gave a lot.”
The pair are good friends, and Williams paid tribute to Azarenka’s resilience saying: “She’s had a lot of, I would say, downs in her career. She started on a lot of highs.
“I don’t know how she stayed positive, to be honest. That’s a good lesson for all of us. No matter what, you just got to keep going. Hopefully she keeps living her dream.”
With her 39th birthday a little more than two weeks away, the question will become: How many more chances will Williams get?
This was Williams’ fourth consecutive three-setter in New York and although she was far better at the outset on Thursday, racing to a 4-0 lead inside of 15 minutes, Azarenka eventually did get going.
Evidence of Azarenka’s brilliance: She compiled 12 winners and merely one unforced error in the second set, then continued her baseline mastery in the third, especially with her backhand.
That carried her to her first win against Williams in 11 career Grand Slam match-ups between the pair.
On Saturday, Azarenka will face Osaka for the championship in a meeting between two-time major champions who have both been ranked No 1 in the past and have been by far the two best players since tennis resumed last month after a pandemic-forced hiatus.
Azarenka has won 11 matches in a row; Osaka’s streak is at 10 after her 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-3 win over Jennifer Brady in a hard-hitting semi-final filled with fast serves and strong forehands.
Azarenka and Osaka were supposed to play in the final of the Western & Southern Open – a hard-court event moved from Ohio to New York this year as part of a two-tournament “controlled environment” with the US Open amid the pandemic – but Osaka withdrew because of an injured left hamstring.
She had that leg taped on Thursday during her high-quality semi-final on the court where she beat Williams for the 2018 title.
“It means a lot for me. I kind of consider New York my second home,” said Osaka, who was born in Japan and moved to the United States as a child. “I kind of love the atmosphere, even though there’s no people here. I feel like this court kind of suits me well.”
It suited both players just fine.
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Osaka served at up to 120mph; Brady reached 117mph. And they pounded the ball once it was in play, too, particularly off the forehand side.
“I just felt like I was sticking it out. It felt like we were trading serves,” Osaka said. “I tried to adjust a little bit on her serve in the third set so maybe that helped.”
They combined for 70 winners – 35 apiece – to just 42 unforced errors, each as good as the other, and it took a bit of luck to swing things after one hour, 45 minutes.
That’s when, at 2-1 in the third set, Osaka earned her first break point with a backhand that clipped the net tape and trickled over. She was able to convert the chance when she hit a deep return of a 110mph serve, and Brady’s backhand in response was called long – although a television replay showed it actually caught a piece of the back of the baseline.
Brady did not challenge the ruling.
Ashe is one of only two courts at the US Open using line judges this year; to reduce the number of people on site, the tournament used electronic line-calling in the other arenas.
Photo Credit: Getty