NEW YORK, September 6, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
When Elina Svitolina and six-time United States Open champion Serena Williams walked out on Arthur Ashe Stadium Thursday night for their semifinal match, it marked the first time in over three years since the two highest-remaining seeds in the women’s singles draw had faced each other. Another sold-out crowd gathered at Flushing Meadows to watch – and be seen – on the biggest stage in tennis. Filmmaker Spike Lee was there, so was Hall of Fame legend Billie Jean King. And, let’s not forget Svitolina’s boyfriend, French tennis star Gaël Monfils, was sitting in her player’s box has he has been the entire New York fortnight, cheering her on. On this electric New York night, anything seemed possible.
With the eighth-seeded Williams leading their career head-to-head 3-1, it seemed fitting that the 23-time Grand Slam champion who is still looking for her first major title since giving birth two years ago to her daughter Olympia, would have the edge over the first Ukrainian woman to reach a US Open semifinal. While the American won their first three meetings – twice during 2015 and in the fourth round of Roland Garros in 2016 – the fifth-seeded Svitolina captured their most recent match, a 6-4, 6-3 third-round win at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Brazil.
As it happened, none of the previous history between these two talented Top 10 players mattered. A very locked-in and focused Williams dropped just four games against Svitolina by capitalizing on some early service breaks in both sets and won 6-3, 6-1 in 70 minutes to reach her 33rd major final and 10th at the US Open. The triumph for Williams was a record-tying victory – her 101st career US Open win, which matched Chris Evert’s total set in 1989.
Now, one win away from reaching a record-tying 24th major title, Williams will face 19-year-old teen sensation Bianca Andreescu from Canada, who overpowered Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, 7-6 (3), 7-5, in the other semifinal.
Evert, who was in the ESPN commentary box analyzing the Williams-Svitolina match for a mostly North American audience, said afterward in praise of Williams, “She’s been calm and focused, and gets being a mom. It’s coming together for her at the right time.”
Speaking of time, the first set of the Williams-Svitolina match lasted 41 minutes, or just three minutes short of Williams’s 6-1, 6-0 quarterfinal rout of 18th seed Wang Qiang on Tuesday. The first two games of the set were lengthy – totaling 16 minutes – including a 12-point opening game in which Svitolina went 0-for-3 on break-point opportunities followed by an 18-point second game in which there were six deuce points before Williams finally broke Svitolina’s serve with a backhand winner, the ninth of her 19 first-set winners.
“They were long games and I know how (Elina) can play. She’s a good player – obviously – with two (major) semis in a row. I just wanted to not get off to a slow start and just hang in there,” said Williams during her post-match TV interview with ESPN’s Rennae Stubbs. “It’s important I just come out and do what I could.”
It seemed, the first two games set a tempo for the rest of the match, in which Williams and Svitolina, the only players who have reached multiple Grand Slam semifinals this year, put on quite a show for everyone to appreciate. Although Svitolina came in without having lost a set, mostly though, it was Williams who maintained her composure from the outset, staying focused during all of the key moments – especially when she broke Svitolina to go ahead 4-1 in the second set with a series of applause-generating points, including a chase down of a good drop shot by Svitolina and a perfectly-angled winner. By then, Serena had taken control of the match just as she’s done during the rest of the fortnight, winning 12 of her 13 sets played and dropping just five games over her last two matches.
Although Svitolina saved one match point, Williams set up the second one by winning an 18-shot rally – longest of the match – with a backhand winner. By the end, Svitolina looked a bit dazed by what she had just witnessed from Serena – power tennis that even included a touch of serve and volley, too. Williams was solid in hitting 33 winners to just 20 unforced errors. She fired six aces and dropped just four points behind her first serve. By contrast, Svitolina hit just 11 winners to 17 unforced errors and was zero for six in break-point conversions.
“I think she knows what she has to do,” said Svitolina after the loss. “She has unbelievable strength. There’s lots of power behind her shots all the time. That’s what makes her an unbelievable, legendary tennis player. On the important moments, she steps up, always steps up, always brings her best game.”
Back on the court, Williams said after her victory, “I just come out here and do what I can. It’s impressive to be in any club with Chrissie. It’s really awesome. I couldn’t have done it without this crowd. Thank you! They’ve stuck with me for 20 years and I’m still here.”
Williams is now 33-5 in Grand Slam semifinals over the course of her career, and 10-3 at this stage at the US Open with her only losses coming to Kim Clijsters in 2009, Roberta Vinci in 2015 and Karolina Pliskova in 2016. The loss was Svitolina’s second major semifinal setback this year and she’s 0-5 in semifinals in 2019, having lost in Doha, Dubai, Indian Wells, Wimbledon and New York.
One thing was evident by the end of the first semifinal. With Williams playing as overpowering as she has been – and with the incentive of erasing the painful memory of a controversial loss to Naomi Osaka in the 2018 final – who can beat her when she plays like she has this week?
During her post-match news conference, Serena said, “It’s really good. I mean, to be in yet another final, it seems honestly crazy. But I don’t really expect too much less.
“I think today was solid. It definitely wasn’t my best tennis. It’s interesting that (Elina) knows that. She’s a super professional to know that. She probably could have played better, as well. I definitely know I could have played better. I’m just focusing on not that, just the next match.”
New kid on the block Andreescu reaches first major final
Bianca Andreescu and Belinda Bencic are the new kids on the block in women’s tennis even though one of them is no longer really a kid in age. Still, when the 19-year-old Canadian wunderkind Andreescu faced Bencic of Switzerland, only 22, for the first time in the second women’s singles semifinal Thursday night, it had the makings of a budding new rivalry.
In what she later described as “It’s just surreal,” the 15th seed Andreescu just couldn’t stop losing. From being a first-round loser in US Open qualifying last year and ranked outside the top 100 at the start of 2019, Andreescu is now a US Open finalist this year. Andreescu beat the 13th seed Bencic, 7-6 (3), 7-5, and will face Serena Williams on Saturday.
“If someone had told me that I would be in the US Open finals a year ago, I would have said they’re crazy,” said Andreescu during a post-match TV interview with ESPN’s Pam Shriver that followed her improbable win. “It’s just a surreal dream come true playing Serena Williams in the finalist of the US Open. It’s crazy, it’s crazy.”
Both Bencic and Andreescu were playing in their first major semifinal, having successfully navigated their respective quarterfinal matches the day before. Bencic beat close friend and frequent practice partner Donna Vekic of Croatia, 7-6 (5), 6-3, while Andreescu took out Elise Mertens from Belgium, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3. Earlier this year, Andreescu won hardcourt titles at Indian Wells and the Rogers Cup in Toronto.
After the two hour and 12 minute semifinal ended, it became apparent that Andreescu is that good and that tough. Consider this: Andreescu never held a break point during the opening set but won it in a tiebreak after she saved all six break points she faced. She even saved a set point along the way with a forehand winner. Then, Andreescu fought back in the second set from being a double-break down and simply refused to lose. She won the last five games of the match to secure her first major final appearance. Andreescu put away the 12-point final game with a solid forehand that Bencic erred in hitting her return into the net.
Andreescu fired 40 winners against 38 unforced errors, while Bencic mustered just 16 winners and committed 32 unforced errors. A key indicator, Andreescu converted four out of her seven break points while Bencic managed a paltry 3-for-13 ratio.
After her quarterfinal win against Vekic, Bencic surprisingly found herself as the last Swiss player left in the US Open singles draws. That’s because her fellow countrymen, 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer and three-time major titlist Stan Wawrinka, both lost their quarterfinal matches on Tuesday.
“This is not a good thing,” said Bencic. “I’m not happy about this, actually. I’m kind of surprised, like I think everyone is. It would be really nice if the boys could also make it to the semifinals. But I’m happy I can kind of do it for them.”
Meanwhile, rising star Andreescu becomes the second Canadian to reach a major final following Eugenie Bouchard, who made it to the Wimbledon final in 2014.
By reaching the semifinals, both Andreescu and Bencic will make their Top 10 debuts when the WTA Rankings are revised following the US Open. Both are very deserving.
Cabal-Farah advance to second straight major final
Doubles world No. 1s Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah, both from Colombia, reached the men’s doubles final with a 7-6 (5), 7-6 (8) win over 15th seeds Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski, both of Great Britain. The reigning Wimbledon champions will face the eighth seeds Marcel Granollers of Spain and Horacio Zeballos from Argentina, who took out the French Open champions and 12th seeds Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies, both from Germany, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5).
The men’s doubles final is scheduled for noon Friday on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
What they’re tweeting
David Law (@DavidLawTennis), BBC5 Live tennis commentator and co-host of The Tennis Podcast: “Serena Williams will compete for the #USOpen title on Saturday, 19 years and 364 days after she did so in 1999.
“That led to her first Grand Slam title. This might lead to her long-awaited 24th.
“Stunning tennis tonight.”
By the numbers
• Bianca Andreescu is just the fourth player in the Open Era (since 1968) to reach the US Open semifinals on her debut at Flushing Meadows. She follows 1971 semifinalist Chris Evert, 1978 runner-up Pam Shriver and 1997 runner-up Venus Williams. It’s hard to imagine, but Andreescu lost in the first round of qualifying here in both 2017 (to Liu Fangzhou) and 2018 (to Olga Danilovic).
• Elina Svitolina defeated the most number of seeds to reach the last four: No. 32 Dayana Yastremska, No. 10 Madison Keys, and No. 16 Johanna Konta, in addition to two-time US Open champion Venus Williams. The one she didn’t beat was the one she need to defeat the most: No. 8 Serena Williams.
What they’re saying
Serena Williams is into her fourth major final since becoming a mom two years ago, still in pursuit of tying Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. She said during her press conference Thursday night: “I definitely would still be playing if I had already passed it. I’ve had so many chances to pass it and to have a lot more, but it’s cool because I’m playing in an era, like five eras with so many amazing players.
“If you look at the span of the career, the players I’ve played, it’s amazing that I was able to get this many.”
Friday’s Arthur Ashe Stadium schedule
Men’s doubles / final
Juan Sebastian Cabal/Robert Farah vs. Marcel Granollers/Horacio Zeballos, noon.
Men’s singles / semifinals
Not before 4 p.m.
No. 5 Daniil Medvedev vs. Grigor Dimitrov
Not before 5:30 p.m.
No. 24 Matteo Berrettini vs. No. 2 Rafael Nadal