On the occasion of her 100th singles victory at the U.S. Open, a 6-1, 6-0 thrashing of an overwhelmed Wang Qiang in 44 minutes Tuesday night, Serena Williams was asked whether she recalled the first match she had won at Flushing Meadows. For the first time on a night of near-perfection that launched her into the semifinals Thursday against Elina Svitolina, Williams was at a loss.
“I don’t remember what the first one was,” she said. “Hmmm. I’m going to look that one up.”
No need. She was told she had earned that initial victory in three sets and it came at the expense of Australian Nicole Pratt. Although most athletes can recall vivid details of their first home run, first goal or first touchdown pass, Williams’ face remained blank. “Wow, I do not remember that at all. Not ring a bell at all,” she said. “I wouldn’t have guessed that.”
She couldn’t have guessed, when she made her debut here in 1998, that she’d someday win 100 matches, or that she’d win the singles championship here six times and win 23 Grand Slam event singles titles, one short of Margaret Court’s record. That was as remote as the moon and the stars. “It never crossed my mind that I’d still be out here,” she said. “I love what I do. I never want to let it go.”
But here she is, a few weeks short of 38, her hunger to win still fresh and her game still commanding enough, when she’s healthy, to take her deep into most tournaments. She said she felt no ill effects from her latest injury — she rolled her ankle during her fourth-round victory over Petra Martic — and her play Tuesday supported that.
Williams was relentless against her intimidated opponent. Wang, the No. 18 seed, had no winners and won merely 15 points; she won four points on Williams’ serve in the first set and three in the second set. Wang gained only one point on her own serve in the second set. Williams, who had 25 winners and won 90 percent of her first-serve points, has had practices that were more challenging.
Wang looked nothing like the confident player who had upset No. 2 Ashleigh Barty and hadn’t dropped a set before the quarterfinals. She acknowledged she felt “a little bit tight” when she walked out to the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, and things soon got much worse. The combination of her nerves and Williams’ fierce focus was simply too much for her to put up even modest resistance. “The power, I cannot handle it. Just too much for me,” Wang said. “I think she’s really great player. Yeah, she [is] just great. I don’t know what to say.”
Williams figures to have a much tougher time in her semifinal against Svitolina, who hasn’t lost a set here. The 24-year-old from Ukraine extended that streak Tuesday with a solid 6-4, 6-4 victory over Johanna Konta to reach her second straight Grand Slam semifinal. Svitolina made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon this summer but lost to eventual champion Simona Halep.
Svitolina needed two match points to end the first set Tuesday but sealed it when a backhand by Konta went long. In the second set, Svitolina had two match points on Konta’s serve but couldn’t put it away. A couple of winners and an ace allowed Svitolina to finish it out on her serve.
Her rise through the ranks has been steady, not meteoric. “I was quite consistent, I would say, but I had some tough matches in the round of 16, quarterfinals, before I started to win them,” she said. “I think it’s been tough and painful losses sometimes, but I think they gave me this push, this confidence, and maybe helped me in some matches.”
Svitolina has lost four of her five career matches against Williams. She earned the lone victory in their most recent encounter, in the round of 16 at the 2016 Rio Olympics. “She’s one of those players that does everything really well, so I have to do everything well too,” Williams said.
Svitolina, seeded fifth, expects Williams, seeded eighth, to push her in every aspect. “Serena is an amazing champion. Probably it’s going to be really tough against her,” Svitolina said. “She has a big serve. ... I have to react quickly and try to take my chances when I have [them].”
Svitolina has been practicing here with her boyfriend, Frenchman Gael Monfils, who will face Matteo Berrettini of Italy in a quarterfinal Wednesday. “Now, he needs to step up his game,” Svitolina joked. She said hitting with him helps her game “because he’s striking the ball very hard and this tournament I am playing a lot of big hitters.”
The biggest hitter of all is Williams. She already leads all active players in wins at the U.S. Open, and one more will bring her even with Chris Evert (101-12) for most victories here in the Open Era. Williams didn’t remember that first win, but it would be foolish to think she has earned her last one here.