NEW YORK — When the U.S. Open needed her most, amidst sweltering weather conditions that have plagued tennis’ biggest stars all tournament, Serena Williams came through. As she nearly always does.
Two major upsets over the past 24 hours sucked major air out of this tournament. On Monday night, Roger Federer lost to world No. 55 John Millman, depriving fans of a dream Federer-Novak Djokovic quarterfinal. Roughly 12 hours later, defending champion Sloane Stephens fell to Anastasija Sevastova, which erased any possibility of a long-awaited meeting between Stephens and Serena in the final rounds of a major.
Had Williams lost to Karolina Pliskova on an uncomfortably warm late summer night, fans would have been treated to a Sevastova-Pliskova semifinal where a Stephens-Serena one could have been. Not exactly beaming with star power.
Serena to the rescue. She was fantastic in defeating Pliskova, who was playing in her third straight U.S. Open quarterfinal, in straight sets—6-4, 6-3—on Tuesday night. Williams outclassed Pliskova with her trademark combination of power and precision and clutchness, walloping 35 winners and saving 10 of 12 break points while generally looking like a player primed to win her 24th Grand Slam singles title.
She punctuated the win in signature style—she is, after all, wearing a Virgil Abloh-designed outfit on the court—pumping in four first serves and finishing with her 13th ace of the match. A gleeful crowd, assured now that at least one of their beloved stars would reach the final four, roared in gracious approval.
Perhaps most impressive in the victory, particularly when you consider that this is a woman who gave birth 367 days ago and then suffered through serious post-pregnancy complications, was Williams’ movement. Her footwork somehow grew more fluid as the night and sweat wore on. Consider the effect the muggy New York heat had on her fellow 1981er Roger Federer the night before. Granted, it was about 10 degrees warmer on Monday night, but Williams looked every bit of 10 years younger than Federer did. She chased down every drop shot, ruthlessly clung to life when Pliskova had clear control of a point and finally appears to be close to full strength and fitness.
“I’ve felt like I can get to any ball that I want to,” she said after the match. “I still feel that way.”
That’s bad news for the other five women remaining in the draw, especially Sevastova, whom Williams will be an overwhelming favorite to defeat on Thursday.
Williams’ return to the pinnacle of the sport once seemed like an "if" rather than a "when." The pregnancy. The motherhood. The medical complications. Her age. Everything was stacked against her, and it would have been neither surprising nor shameful had she never returned to the level she was at on Thursday night.
It is now clear that Williams’ return is a matter of "when," and that "when" increasingly feels like it is the 2018 U.S. Open. At one point during the second set, when Williams was in the middle of winning eight straight games over the No. 8 player in the world, Pliskova looked helplessly toward her box, as if to ask, “What can I do?” Williams was in overdrive; a master at work in her 100th match at her office: Arthur Ashe.
Asked how she felt about Williams’ prospects going forward, a gracious Pliskova put it simply: “She can beat all of them.”
Whether Williams will win two more matches here is uncertain, because everything in tennis is uncertain. John Millman gave us an all-caps reminder of just that. But she is back in New York, playing fantastic tennis in front of fans that absolutely adore her. Doubt her chances at your own peril.