Column: Serena Williams powers past Elina Svitolina to earn spot in U.S. Open finals

Serena Williams celebrates her victory over Elina Svitolina during the U.S. Open women's semifinals in New York on Thursday.
Serena Williams celebrates her victory over Elina Svitolina.
(Timothy A. Clary /AFP/Getty Images)

Serena Williams has another date with tennis history, and this one is infused with urgency. If she is going to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam event singles titles — a feat that has eluded her in three finals since she returned to competition following the birth of her daughter — she will have to do it soon, while she’s free of injuries and before Canada’s Bianca Andreescu gains enough big-match experience to become even more formidable than she already is.

Compton-raised Williams will vie for a share of Court’s record Saturday when she faces Andreescu, who wasn’t born when Williams won the first of her six U.S. Open titles in 1999. Williams’ 6-3, 6-1 semifinal demolition of Elina Svitolina on Thursday was stunning, and not only because fifth-seeded Svitolina hadn’t lost a set while reaching her second straight Slam semifinal or because Williams, 38, won most of the long rallies against her 24-year-old Ukrainian opponent.

It was striking because No. 8 seed Williams displayed the highest level of both her power and her touch, because she went to the net — where she won 11 of 16 points — and because she hit 34 winners to 11 for an outclassed Svitolina. “To be in yet another final, it seems honestly crazy. But I don’t really expect too much less,” Williams said after she equaled Chris Evert’s record of 101 singles victories at the U.S. Open. “I think today was solid. It definitely wasn’t my best tennis.”


Andreescu, 19, trailed 2-5 in the second set of her semifinal against Belinda Bencic before pulling out a 7-6 (3), 7-5 win that launched her into her first Grand Slam event final and cemented her reputation as a fighter. Andreescu, who had come back from a set down against Elise Mertens in the quarterfinals, was relentless Thursday in recording 40 winners to 16 for Bencic. “It’s just surreal,” said Andreescu, who won her lone career matchup against Williams when a back injury led Williams to retire during the first set of the Rogers Cup final last month in Toronto. “I really don’t know what to say. It’s a dream come true. It’s crazy.”

Andreescu experienced many disappointments on her way to living this dream. After a solid junior career, she was slowed by injuries, and she lost in qualifying here last year and didn’t make it into the main draw. She was ranked 152nd in the world, relegated to playing small tournaments with small payouts.

“I was having problems with some relationships in my life, with my body, and even my mind too,” she said. “I was playing 25Ks, I remember, 60Ks in Canada before the [qualifying tournament] of the U.S. Open. But I’m glad I went through it, because at one point you have to. I think I just learned a lot. I’m really glad with how everything is piling up with me.”

She made her breakthrough this year by winning the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. That’s what Osaka did last year before she went on on to defeat Williams in an acrimonious U.S. Open final last September. That defeat for Williams was sandwiched between a loss to Angelique Kerber in the 2018 Wimbledon final and a loss to Simona Halep on Wimbledon’s grass in this year’s final.

Williams won her most recent major title at the Australian Open in 2017, while in the early stages of pregnancy. “I think it’s cool that I’ve been in more [Grand Slam] finals than, I think anyone on tour after being pregnant. I think that’s kind of awesome. [Anyone] that’s currently on tour,” she said. “I kind of look at it that way because it’s not easy to go through what I did and come back, and so fast. To keep playing, to also not be 20 years old, yeah, I’m pretty proud of myself.”

Williams said she hadn’t thought about what she’d learned from going 0 for 3 in those opportunities to tie Court, but she has been able to put in a lot of time to regain her fitness. “It always feels good to train without pain,” she said.

She has moved well here, and she will have to sustain that against Andreescu. “She really knows how to mix up the game and play different shots in different ways,” Williams said. “Above all, I just like her as a person. She’s amazing.”

Andreescu said that at 16, after she won the junior Orange Bowl title, she wrote herself a check for the amount of money she’d win if she prevailed at the U.S. Open — a sum that has soared to $3.85 million each for the men’s and women’s singles champions. “Ever since that moment I just kept visualizing that,” she said. “If that can happen on Saturday, then that would be pretty cool.”

Williams might not get many other chances to prevent Andreescu from cashing that check.