After 23 Grand Slam titles, Serena is still finding new ways to win

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WATCH—Court Report from Day 11 at the US Open:

NEW YORK—“I usually come in only to shake hands,” Serena Williams joked after her 66-minute, 6-3, 6-0 win over Anastasija Sevastova in the US Open semifinals on Thursday.

She started a little earlier tonight.

Over the course of her first five matches at this year’s US Open, Serena had won a total of 23 points at the net; tonight she won 24, in 28 trips there.

Serena was quick to point out that she has won her share of doubles titles, so she does know how to volley. But this display of good hands—in its versatility, it’s difficulty, and its mastery—was something we had rarely seen from her, even in all of her 23 major-title runs.

According to Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, coming forward was always part of the plan tonight.

“You want to get into your game,” he told her, “not get into hers.”


(Anita Aguilar)

Sevastova’s game is all about staying steady, mixing spins and speeds, and giving her opponents a heavy dose of something Serena hadn’t seen a whole lot of these two weeks: Slice backhands. When Sevastova went up an early break by shifting between her slice and drive backhands, and throwing in a few deft drop shots, many of us started to think back to another semifinal that Serena played here, against Roberta Vinci in 2015. Were we going to see a repeat of that epic upset tonight?

Serena, it seems, had learned her lesson from that match, as well as her loss to another defensive-minded player, Angelique Kerber, in the Wimbledon final in July. Against Kerber, Serena has often seemed unsure of whether to commit fully to finishing points at net when she has the chance. She’s more comfortable closing rallies with a ground stroke, but Kerber is fast enough to get most of her shots from the baseline back. Faced with a similar dilemma tonight, Serena didn’t hesitate to head forward whenever she could.

In the second game, Sevastova greeted Serena with a backhand pass winner. On other nights, that might have been enough to discourage Serena from venturing up to net many more times. Baseliners, even ones as confident as Serena, are typically quick to retreat after watching a couple of clean passes whistle by them. But the fact that so much of Sevastova’s game revolves around her drop shot essentially left Serena with no choice but to keep looking to sprint forward.

Soon one good volley led to another, and by the second set she was anticipating Sevastova’s passes and sticking the ball into the open court like a modern-day Martina Navratilova. By the end, every part of her game was clicking—the forehand return she drilled up the line to break for 5-0 in the second set may have been the cleanest strike on the ball she’s had all tournament.

As for Sevastova, her coach lamented her inability to make enough first serves. Sixty percent was never going to get it done against Serena, considering that Sevastova won just four of 22 points on her second serve. After a sharp start, her ground strokes also went back into their shell, and she couldn’t get the ball around or over Serena at net. Her presence there alone was enough to keep Sevastova from swinging freely, and she finished with just 10 winners on the night.

After 20 years on tour and 23 major titles, Serena found a new place to go on court, and a new way to win.

“I feel like I’m just getting started,” the 36-year-old has said more than once since returning to the tour this year. Many of us, I’m guessing, didn’t believe her. Maybe it’s time to start.


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