Serena Williams walked into Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday night for her semifinal match against No. 19 Anastasija Sevastova and tried to push three years of history aside. If she was going to make the US Open final for the first time since 2014, she couldn’t allow her mind to wander to her loss here in the 2015 semifinal against unseeded Roberta Vinci, when Williams was attempting to win the calendar-year Grand Slam.
She couldn’t think about her semifinal loss to Karolina Pliskova on Ashe the following year, when she was attempting to win a record 23rd major. And not until she raised her racket in victory, after beating Sevastova 6-3, 6-0 in 66 minutes, did Williams give in to the memory of where she was on this day last year — in a South Florida hospital after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia, undergoing the third of four surgeries to save her life.
To come from that, in the hospital bed, not being able to move and walk and do anything, to now only a year later, I’m actually in these finals, in two [Grand Slam finals] in a row, Williams said shortly after the match. I obviously wanted to be back to the final a couple years ago, but it wasn’t meant to be. I just have to take it one step at a time, do the best that I can. Like I said, this is the beginning. I’m not there yet. I’m on the climb still.
Despite playing one of the most complete, dominant matches of her comeback Thursday night, one in which she executed to a T the game plan she and coach Patrick Mouratoglou meticulously crafted, Williams knows not to get ahead of herself before Saturday’s final against 20-year-old Naomi Osaka. Williams has one more round to go before she can say she has returned to true Grand Slam Serena form.
This next match is the most important match, Mouratoglou told ESPN.com. Every match is a different story, so you cannot write the book before you are on the right page. We will be on the right page on Saturday.
Williams dropped the first two games of the first set Thursday, winning only three points — and then won 12 of the next 13 games. But don’t call it a comeback. Williams said she was feeling out Sevastova, a player with a game unlike most of the women she’s faced so far this season — and with a game eerily similar to that of Vinci’s.
I felt like I’ve lost a lot of matches against players like this. Not a lot, but I’ve lost some, Williams said. I want to see what I can do better to win matches against players that get a lot of balls back. I usually play players that hit really, really hard, so I really had to feel her out early on, then try to make the best of it.
While Mouratoglou wasn’t willing to divulge all the details of their semifinal strategy, he said the plan was for Williams to get to the net more often, hit more volleys, and when Sevastova changed direction, to play behind her and not allow her to play defense and control the pace of the game. But even he never expected Williams to play 28 shots from the net — 24 of which she won. For comparison: Williams went to the net on average eight times during the first five games of this tournament.
Even though that was the plan, it’s not easy to execute when it’s not something you do all the time, Mouratolgou said. I think she was very courageous to do it 100 percent, especially in a semifinal of a Grand Slam. But that is Serena. She is always surprising.
Earlier this year, after Williams won her second-round match at Indian Wells, the first tournament of her return, Mouratolgou told me she would win a 24th Grand Slam this season. Although it was an audacious claim at the time, he didn’t say it to be provocative. It was something he said he believed with great conviction. Thursday night, after taking Williams through her postmatch cool-down knowing that in two days she will have a third opportunity to make good on that claim, he said he never once waivered in his belief.
Not one second did I doubt what I said, because I know that when she really wants something, she is able to work so hard and make it happen, Mouratoglou said. And the work she’s done since April, it’s been unbelievable. I’ve never seen her work that hard. So I know she really wants it.
And therein lies the most difficult task ahead for both Williams and her coach, to do what she was unable to do in 2015 and 2016: Shut out all the expectation and desire and outside noise and find the inner stillness and focus to execute her game plan as well as she has all tournament one more time.
It’s a lot about connecting her with herself, Mouratoglou said. Sometimes with outside elements, you lose track of yourself. And I think that is what happened in those past semifinals. If she is connected with the champion she is and able to play her game, there is nobody that can match her level. And if a person does match her level, because she’s Serena, she will step up and she will win. When Serena is Serena, she’s unstoppable.