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Serena Williams has accomplished an incredible amount in her storied career. With a U.S. Open final on the horizon and another chance to tie Margaret Court's record, can she beat Bianca Andreescu and banish her recent Grand Slam final demons? 

By Stanley Kay
September 06, 2019

NEW YORK — Serena Williams has been here before. Many times, in fact: On Saturday, she’ll play her 33rd Grand Slam final—her 10th at the U.S. Open alone—19 years and 362 days since her first, setting a new record. That first one, a straight-sets win over Martina Hingis, also came in Flushing Meadows.

That’s the thing about being Serena Williams these days: She can barely walk outside without setting a new record. Like on Thursday, when she beat Elina Svitolina 6-3, 6-1 in the U.S. Open semifinals: The win, which sent her to a second straight final in Flushing Meadows, also tied Chris Evert’s record of 101 career victories at the U.S. Open. She can break that record this weekend when she faces Bianca Andreescu in the U.S. Open final, but that’s nothing compared to the other record she can match: Margaret Court’s all-time standard of 24 Grand Slam titles.

Of course, there’s another side to spending two decades at the top of the sport; occasionally, you lose a big match. Recently, though, the losses have been a bit less occasional. Williams has dropped her last three Grand Slam finals, all in straight sets: Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep beat her at Wimbledon in 2018 and ‘19, respectively, and Naomi Osaka upset her at last year’s U.S. Open. Previously, Williams had only lost consecutive major finals once and had never lost three in a row.

But to lose a final, you have to get there first. And in reaching her second straight U.S. Open final on Thursday, Williams was sensational, dominating a top-five opponent who had yet to drop a set this tournament.

“To be in yet another final, it seems honestly crazy,” the 23-time Grand Slam champion said. “But I don’t really expect too much less.”

The start of the match wasn’t so one-sided. The first two games were extraordinarily tense, with both players pushing each other on serve. After Williams saved three break points in the opening game to hold, she denied Svitolina on six game points the following game and forced three break opportunities of her own, finally converting on a backhand winner down the line on the 18th point of the second frame.

With Williams leading 3–1 and serving, Svitolina jumped out to a 0–40 lead. But Williams responded forcefully, hitting her groundstrokes with pace and playing more aggressive, including a rare serve-and-volley that ended with Williams smacking a swinging volley winner with her backhand. (“Don’t expect that again,” she joked on court after the match.) On the next point, she wrong-footed Svitolina with a forehand winner to the ad court. Williams won the next two points, earning a crucial hold to maintain control of the first set.

For those not counting at home: That’s six break-point opportunities for Svitolina, none of them taken.

“That’s why she is who she is,” Svitolina said of those missed chances. “If you don’t take it, she just grabs it and there’s no chance to take it back.”

There would be no more such opportunities. After Williams held twice more to seal the first set, Svitolina held serve at love to open the second. That was the last game she’d win. Williams seized control, grabbing her first break in the third frame and tightening her grip on the match from there, dazzling Arthur Ashe Stadium with brilliant shot-making and exceptional movement.

Her performance in the second set was pure brilliance. Overall, Williams won 66 points to Svitolina’s 44, and hit 34 winners and 20 unforced errors, compared to 11 and 17, respectively, for Svitolina. The scary part, though, is that for as dominant as the final scoreline appeared, Williams wasn’t even at her best. Take it from her opponent. 

“I don’t think she played amazing today,” Svitolina said. “But she played [at a] very high level at the beginning where you had to make a difference.”

Before Thursday's match, Svitolina looked like she'd give Williams her toughest challenge yet. Though Williams held a 4–1 career advantage over the world No. 5, including two wins in Grand Slams, they hadn’t played since the 2016 Rio Olympics, when Svitolina was only 21. Since then, Svitolina has won nine of her 13 career titles—including the 2018 WTA Finals—and reached a career-high ranking of No. 3 in late 2017. She’s reached the last two Grand Slam semifinals.

But beating such a strong player doesn't guarantee Williams much beyond a seventh match this tournament. Before losing those three recent Grand Slam finals, Williams likewise dominated her semifinal opponents, beating them all in straight sets and dropping a mere 12 combined games.

“There’s a lot of things that I’ve learned in the past,” Williams said. “But I just have to go out there—above all, most of all, just stay relaxed.”

Perhaps those lopsided losses, to Kerber and Halep at Wimbledon and Osaka at the U.S. Open, were mere aberrations. Williams, after all, has now reached four Grand Slam finals in the last 14 months. In an era of parity—of six first-time winners the last 10 Slams and nine different champions the last 11—that’s remarkable, especially considering she’s approaching 38 and gave birth two years ago. But for all her historical success, it’s hard to ignore recent history. Two consecutive losses in major finals? Sure, that’s a coincidence. But three, as the old adage goes, makes a trend.

Andreescu, the 19-year-old Canadian, could prove a vexing opponent. They met in the Rogers Cup final last month, but Williams retired early in the first set with a back injury that later forced her to withdraw from Cincinnati. In Flushing Meadows, the No. 15 seed beat Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets before conquering Taylor Townsend and Elise Mertens in three sets each. Against Belinda Bencic in Thursday’s second semifinal, Andreescu won the first set in a tiebreaker before rallying from 2–5 down in the second to win the match 7–6(3), 7–5. 

“She really knows how to mix up the game and play different shots in different ways,” Williams said. “Above all, I just like her as a person.”

Williams has lost just three U.S. Open finals, including last year’s to Osaka. She followed those previous two losses, in 2001 and 2011, by winning a title the following year. There’s good reason to think she’ll do the same this time around. Williams is playing exceptional tennis, and she’ll face a far younger opponent playing her first Grand Slam final. Then again, that was the case with Osaka.

A title on Saturday would give Williams her seventh U.S. Open trophy and 24th major victory. But for all the honors she’s collected, it would also be a first—a maiden Grand Slam title as a mother.

“It’s not easy to go through what I did and come back, and so fast,” Williams said. “To keep playing—to also not be 20 years old—I’m pretty proud of myself.”

Winning a Grand Slam final isn’t easy. But as Serena Williams knows better than anyone, the hardest part is already over.

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