Serena Williams started out like a ball of fire and ended up flaming out in the U.S. Open semifinals Thursday night under a closed roof at Ashe Stadium.
Naomi Osaka held up her part of the bargain by advancing to the finals, but Williams failed to join her for a 2018 rematch after winning the first set and looking unstoppable against Victoria Azarenka.
Azarenka gained her mojo and beat the 38-year-old Compton legend in a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 three-setter, keeping Williams stuck on 23 Grand Slam victories. Williams, one Slam away from tying Margaret Court for the all-time mark, hasn’t won a Slam since January 2017, when she won the Australian Open.
The victory by the Belarus native spoiled the rematch of the 2018 Open finals between Osaka-Williams. Early in the third set and down a break, an exhausted Williams asked for a five-minute injury timeout for her ankle after she took a bad step. But Williams never showed any signs of limping before or after. The stop in play, however, wasn’t enough to stop Azarenka’s surge.
This was Williams’ best chance of stealing another Slam as six of the world’s top 10 players had decided not to play. Williams will turn 39 later this month and hasn’t guaranteed she will play the French Open in two weeks.
The stands were fuller than at any time during the fortnight — a good 100 people scattered around the arena.
It was a rollicking first two sets with a substantial amount of clapping. Azarenka started out nervous and tentative while Williams played like a monster.
Williams wiped her out in the first set in charging to a 4-0 lead, breaking Azarenka. With the roof closed, negating any wind, Williams hit full out and was blistering balls to both corners and crushing her first serve, winning 83 percent of those points. The Belarus native didn’t look ready for the fight.
It changed in the second set as Azarenka was bouncing on the balls of her feet like a heavyweight prizefighter, screaming out “C’mon!” after winning rallies. She answered the bell with a renewed vigor and new energy
The two-time Grand Slam champion began ripping back Williams’ service returns and finally broke her at 2-2 to seize the momentum.
Azarenka broke Williams to close the set with a backhand winner, pumping her fists as she ran off the court at a set apiece.
In a longtime rivalry, Williams had owned Azarenka 10-0 in majors before Thursday’s comeback.