Serena Williams’ quest for an historic 24th Grand Slam singles title came to a stunning end against old foe Victoria Azarenka in the semi-finals of the US Open in the early hours of Friday morning.
Williams was not helped by a jarred Achilles injury early in the deciding set that required heavy strapping and her quest to equal Margaret Court’s record goes on.
Instead, it is two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka who will face Naomi Osaka in a quite remarkable story of resurgence.
The 31-year-old had been a shadow of her former self since her stop-start return from maternity leave in 2017 and had almost been written off as a major contender prior to her victory on the same courts in the Western & Southern Open last month.
“I knew it wasn’t over at 5-3,” said the Belarusian. “I’ve been there before. Today was going to be different. I was young, my ego was way too big. Now it’s a little smaller and the result’s coming.”
The presence of so many mothers in the draw and in the latter stages of the tournament has been a major talking point, and Azarenka hopes she can encourage other women to aim high.
“Hopefully it inspires women to go after their dreams,” she said. “I feel like you can’t always identify yourself as just one thing. You have many things you can do in your life.
“Being a parent is the most important thing in my life but I’m a tennis player on the court, I’m a fighter on the court and, when I go after my dreams, inspire my child and I hope that women around the world know they can do anything because being a parent is the toughest thing so once you can balance that you can do anything.”
A lengthy custody battle with her former partner over their three-year-old son, Leo, kept her away for several spells and took its toll on and off court, while her confidence ebbed away.
This was the former world No 1’s first slam semi-final since her second consecutive final against Williams in New York in 2013, both of which were high-quality, close affairs but both were won by the American.
But this was every bit as good, with Azarenka continuing the form that saw her lose just one game against Elise Mertens in the quarter-finals.
Williams, by contrast, had survived three-set battles against Sloane Stephens, Maria Sakkari and Tsvetana Pironkova but crushed any suggestion of vulnerability in a pulsating start.
Azarenka helped her with a nervy first service game and Williams needed no second invitation to crush her opponent’s weaker second serve.
In no time she was 4-0 up, and in just 34 minutes she wrapped up the opening set.
It seemed a minor setback when Williams missed the chance to break for 2-0 in the second set, but that gave Azarenka a foothold and she grabbed it. She began to dictate from the middle of the court, marching to her chair after breaking for a second time to win the set.
“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.”
Suddenly it was Williams needing to change the momentum, and what she certainly did not need was an injury.
The 38-year-old clutched her left Achilles heel as Azarenka made it deuce in the second game of the deciding set, and the Belarusian broke after a lengthy medical timeout.
Williams threw everything she had at Azarenka as she tried to claw her way back into the match, her screams reverberating around the empty Arthur Ashe Stadium. But Azarenka held her nerve superbly and got the sweetest of rewards, sealing victory with an ace for her first win over Williams at a Grand Slam in 11 tries.
Osaka won a power battle against Jennifer Brady to march back into the US Open final.
The 2018 champion, who was watched by her rapper boyfriend Cordae, has hit top form again at Flushing Meadows and came out on top of a high-quality match to triumph 7-6 (7-1) 3-6 6-3.
Brady has been the breakout star of the tournament and her performance here showed that America has yet another woman who can challenge for major titles.
But that honour here will go to Osaka, who will take on Azarenka in her third major final.
The Japanese fourth seed came onto court wearing a mask bearing the name of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man who was shot dead by a police officer in 2016.
Osaka’s Black Lives Matter activism has garnered lots of attention and appears to have helped her on court.
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