For the third straight match, Serena Williams needed to go the full three sets.
And for the third straight time, Williams showed the fitness and fight at age 38 to rally to a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Tsvetana Pironkova and charge into Thursday’s US Open semifinals.
“I was a little fatigued [in the first set],’’ Williams said. “I’m most happy about that I never give up.’’
Williams now faces the winner of the Victoria Azarenka-Elise Mertens match, which is scheduled for Wednesday night.
The unseeded and tricky Pironkova put a mighty scare into Williams by disrupting her rhythm with a rare slice forehand out of the paddbleball courts of nearby Rockaway Beach.
But Williams did her one better during a key game in the second set. Williams switched to her left hand – paddleball style – to return a serve from her backhand side. The ball weakly cleared the net but an off-balance Pironkova whipped it long. That set up a Serena break point and she outlasted the Bulgarian baseliner in a 24-ball rally ending with a drop shot that hit the top of the net.
Williams then broke a tiring Pironkova on her first service game of the third set amid a five-game winning streak. She is two wins away from tying Margaret Court with 24 Grand Slam titles.
Perhaps this should’ve been much tidier for Williams. The 32-year-old Pironkova played her last tour match on tour over three years ago at Wimbledon in 2017. During her time away from the tour, she became a mother and didn’t want to return so quickly.
“Everything changes,” the Bulgarian said of motherhood earlier in the tournament. “Your priorities have nothing to do with what they did before.”
“I could barely win a match when I came back,’’ Williams said, saluting her opponent. “She’s incredible. It just shows me how tough mothers are. If you can birth a baby, you can do anything.’’
Williams became a mother three years ago as well, but she’ll be the one rolling to the semifinals.
The contrasting styles were fun to watch: Williams offered sheer power, while Pironkova would change up the tempo before crushing a well-angled backhand.
At 2-2 in the first set, Pironkova posted her break, using a slice to freeze Williams, then followed it up with a crosscourt forehand winner. Williams roared loudly after holding to get it to 4-3, but was still down a break and never recovered to drop the first set.