Having thrashed Anastasia Sevastova in a mere 66 minutes to reach her ninth US Open final, Serena Williams sent out a warning to any rivals who hoped her comeback would be brief. “This is just the beginning,” she told the on-court interviewer Tom Rinaldi. “I’m only a few months in and really looking forward to the rest of the year and next year.”
Nobody was quite sure what to expect when Williams made her return from the birth of Alexis Olympia, who arrived on Sept 1, 2017. Her play was patchy in her early tournaments, her movement sluggish. But on Thursday night, Williams rediscovered peak form in her most compelling display since she went away on maternity leave.
“It was tough for sure,” said Sevastova, who came out with a canny gameplan that involved slicing the ball back deep as often as possible and waiting for Williams to miss. This approach had worked for Roberta Vinci in the semi-final here three years ago, and it made early inroads when Williams was broken in her opening service game and soon found herself trailing 2-0.
But the Vinci experience – which ended the dream of a calendar slam – may have given Williams a sense of how to deal with these soft-balling opponents. Rather than hang back on the baseline and trade, she began moving forward and taking the ball out of the air. She finished with 28 net approaches on her scoresheet, and won the point a remarkable 24 times.
Rocked back by Williams’s aggressive tactics, Sevastova looked increasingly agitated, turning to her coaches and beating her hand on her chest. Her tennis fell away sharply, as she kept experimenting with drop shots that often failed to even reach the net.
“I’ve been working hard on my volleys,” Williams would tell Rinaldi after her 6-3, 6-0 victory. I have won a few doubles championships, so I know how to volley. I just usually only come in only to shake hands.”
In fact, Williams has won 13 majors and three gold medals when partnered by sister Venus – another example of what a strong grip she has exerted over the game for the last 20 years. But it is her singles tally of 23 titles that will be one focus of Saturday’s final. Another victory, over Saturday’s opponent Naomi Osaka, would carry her level with Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24.
Osaka beat Madison Keys 6-2, 6-4 in the second semi-final on Thursday night, showing not only the heavy artillery that we already knew she possessed, but also huge mental poise. The break-point statistics were the key: Osaka had four chances and took three of them, while Keys went 0 for 13.
When Rinaldi asked Osaka how she had staved off all those threats, she replied “This is going to sound really bad, but I was just thinking ‘I really want to play Serena.’” She is the first Japanese woman to reach a grand-slam final.