Serena Williams is now only two wins away from etching her name into tennis immortality after a hard-fought and emotionally charged 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 victory over big sister Venus in the US Open women’s quarter-final on Tuesday night.
Under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, fans filled the game’s grandest arena to capacity to watch the 27th version of what is now a 17-year history between two of the sport’s most iconic and decorated players.
It’s rare that Serena, playing in New York City, is not the fan favorite, but the crowd of nearly 24,000 was decidedly split between wanting Serena to win and not wanting Venus to lose.
Seeded No. 1 at a Grand Slam for the 19th time in her career, Serena entered this quarterfinal with a 15-11 head-to-head advantage over Venus, including wins in six of their past seven meetings, but it was the elder Williams who sprinted out of the blocks, ripping fierce ground strokes and closing points at the net like the Venus of a decade ago; effortless, gracious, dynamic.
Venus out-slugged her history-chasing sister for the first four games, stepping inside the baseline to return her serve and matching power with power in a shootout between two players with some of the biggest ground games in the business.
In front of more than 70 photographers jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, it was Serena who grabbed the first break in a high-quality, hard-hitting affair. Serving at 2-2, Venus dumped a backhand into the net to give Serena an advantage, which she consolidated with a 117-mph unreturnable serve to forge ahead 4-2. The 33-year-old moved ahead 5-2 moments later, orchestrating a beautiful backhand lob off one leg. The 21-time Grand Slam champion closed out the set with a fourth straight game to wrap up the opening set in 33 minutes.
Serena recorded 15 winners to just two unforced errors in firing the first salvo, but 35-year-old Venus was not prepared to go quietly. She broke at 1-2 on her second break point opportunity of the match after Serena first slipped and fell sliding to her backhand side and then planted a 68 mph second serve into the middle of the net.
Two games later, No. 23 seed Venus broke once more as Serena missed a mid-court forehand. Then, at 5-1, Venus converted her third set point to force a decider for the 11th time in their career and the first time in five US Open meetings. It was the first time since a 2007 loss to Belgian Justine Henin that Serena had lost a set 6-1 in Flushing Meadows.
Parity was restored only briefly, however, as Serena ripped a pair of backhand winners – one crosscourt, the other down the line – to surge ahead 2-0 in the third set. Serena saved a break point in the third game, but Venus rarely came close to threatening again. A Venus forehand sailing long at 30-15 in the ninth game brought Serena down to one knee behind the baseline and set up two match points. Serena needed just one as she delivered an ace out wide to book her place in the final four.
Serena won her 33rd consecutive Grand Slam women’s singles match – and her 26th straight at a major this year – to book her place in the semifinals, where she’ll play Italian Roberta Vinci on Thursday night.
That puts Serena four sets away from becoming the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win all four Grand Slam singles titles in one calendar year. It also leaves her potentially just four sets away from matching Graf’s Open era record of 22 Grand Slam titles and ahead of Chris Evert for the most US Open crowns of all time.
Vinci has never taken a set off Serena in four career meetings, including their most recent matchup last month in the Toronto quarterfinals.
Serena never needs a reason to get fired up for a match, especially in the second week of a major. But after the emotional toll of playing her big sister, can she once again distance herself from playing for history, to ensure she doesn’t fall flat against an unseeded-but-dangerous opponent?