Column: Serena Williams, back in U.S. Open quarterfinal despite injury, in a ‘different zone’

Serena Williams moves toward the net for a possible volley during her win over Petra Martic on Sunday at the U.S. Open.
(Sarah Stier / Associated Press)

On the first day of September two years ago, Serena Williams was recovering from an emergency caesarean section, hazy and exhausted as she held her daughter Olympia in her arms. The next day Williams developed blood clots, one of many complications that kept her away from tennis tournaments for six months.

On the first day of September this year, her body and competitive fire restored, Williams became a 16-time U.S. Open quarterfinalist. She rolled her right ankle during the fifth game of the second set of her 6-3, 6-4 victory over Petra Martic at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday, but she was undeterred, finishing with a sizzling ace to earn her 99th victory in a tournament she has won six times, the first in 1999.

“I was definitely out of it two years ago, but it’s cool,” she said. “It’s just such a great experience to think I’m a mom. It’s still super-weird to me.”

During the early stages of her return — which, incredibly, included reaching three Grand Slam singles finals — Williams grudgingly accepted she wouldn’t quickly regain her old, dominant form and was kind to herself when her progress was slow. No allowances needed anymore. She’s back. That was confirmed when she racked up 38 winners against Martic, who had more unforced errors (12) than winners (11).

“I have definitely turned [into] a different zone,” Williams said. “I’m not sure if I can articulate what zone that is.”

After being hampered by knee and ankle injuries this year she was in good form when she arrived here. Rolling her ankle when she fell Sunday initially led her to think, “No, this can’t happen. I’m finally healthy,” but she said things seemed to be good. This time, she got a trainer to tape it quickly. She didn’t seek help after she sprained her ankle during her Australian Open quarterfinal in January, one reason she squandered four match points and a 5-1 lead in the third set in losing to Karolina Pliskova.


“I definitely wanted to have a better plan,” she said Sunday. “I probably should have seen a trainer in Australia.”

Her window of opportunity to win a 24th Grand Slam event singles title and match Margaret Court’s record remains open, though it might be shrinking because she will be 38 in a few weeks. Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, believes she will get there. “I feel that time works for her,” he said, “and I know it can sound strange because she’s not very young. ... I feel she’s moving better now than she was a few months ago. She also was injured a lot.”

Williams’ hopes here were enhanced when her half of the draw lost No. 2 seed and reigning French Open champion Ashleigh Barty, and No. 3 Pliskova. But No. 5 Elina Svitolina advanced to her third Grand Slam quarterfinal this year with a 7-5, 6-4 victory over American Madison Keys, the No. 10 seed. Svitolina faced no break points from 2017 U.S. Open runner-up Keys, who didn’t return well and committed 40 unforced errors. “I’m very happy because I was always playing well here but never went past the fourth round,” Svitolina said.

For every Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff who achieve early success there are dozens of players who struggle to earn berths at big events.

Barty fell to No. 18 Wang Qiang, a 6-2, 6-4 winner. “It’s a tough day at the office today,” said Barty, who couldn’t convert any of her nine break points.

Wang has never faced Williams. They were scheduled to meet in a tournament at Miami this year, but Williams withdrew because of a knee injury. Wang, headed for her first Grand Slam quarterfinal, was coy when asked if she’d have the confidence to prevail. “I don’t know. Let’s see,” she said, smiling.

Pliskova was outdueled by Johanna Konta, who pulled out a 6-7 (1), 6-3, 7-5 victory to earn a quarterfinal berth against Svitolina. Konta, seeded No. 16, had lost seven of her previous eight matches against Pliskova.

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“I’m just pleased I was able to basically just find a way and enjoy being out there, knowing that nothing was for certain,” Konta said. “I could have lost that match just as easily as I would have won it.”

Although Williams’ path figures to be easier, she’s not assuming anything.

“Every single match I have played, people come and they play their best,” she said. “The women that I play are not generally playing at this level against other players in the locker room so, for me, I have to be the greatest whether it’s against the second seed, the No. 1 seed or the No. 80th player in the world. I have to show up or else I’m going to go home.”

Two years ago, Sept. 1 was “the best day of my life,” she said.

It was a decent day this year too, as she moved a step closer to that record-tying 24th championship and had an enchanting little daughter waiting for her Mamma to come home and read a bedtime story together.