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Column: Serena Williams’ ferocious will remains undeterred

Serena Williams reacts during her U.S. Open quarterfinal match against Tsvetana Pironkova on Wednesday in New York.
Serena Williams reacts during her U.S. Open quarterfinal match against Tsvetana Pironkova on Wednesday in New York.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

Serena Williams was caught off-balance as Tsvetana Pironkova’s serve came at her, angling toward the corner, in the eighth game of the second set of their U.S. Open quarterfinal match on Wednesday. It was a pivotal moment: Williams had lost the first set to the steady Bulgarian and had stayed in the second set mainly because of her powerful serve, but Williams knew she’d have to find other ways to win points and push Pironkova into mistakes.

Serving at 3-4 and love-15, Pironkova blasted a serve to Williams’ left, leaving Williams no time to reposition her feet or turn her body. So Williams switched her racket from her powerful right hand to her left hand and made an effective return, startling Pironkova and eventually winning the game that cleared the way for Williams to continue her quest for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title.

Williams wasn’t dazzling in coming back for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory at Arthur Ashe Stadium except for hitting 20 aces, her most in eight years. She didn’t dominate Pironkova, who made a remarkable run in her first tournament in three years and first as the mother of a son.

Williams, herself the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, needed every resource she owned to advance to the semifinals on Thursday against Victoria Azarenka, a 6-1, 6-0 winner over Elise Mertens, but her inconsistent performance wasn’t a sign of decline.

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The 23-time Grand Slam tournament winner returns to action Monday in Kentucky after six months of isolation with a new attitude of living in the now.

That left-handed return — and another lefty stroke she hit while breaking Pironkova’s serve in the entertaining first game of the third set — was a testament to the ferocious will that drives Williams even when her body is slow to obey her commands. The six-time U.S. Open champion will be 39 in a few weeks but she’s conceding nothing to age, still working every angle, drawing on her incomparably deep reserves and battling with the spirit she developed as a child playing with her sister Venus on hardscrabble public courts in Compton.

“That was intense,” Williams said of switching her racket to her left hand in that crucial game. “At that point I was fighting so hard. I don’t know. Actually been hitting a little lefty in my practice, but not on purpose. I noticed the other day I hit a lefty shot and I was just in practice being super intense, and I guess it came through in the match.”

Williams got off to a slow start in her third straight three-set match; she had to come back against Sloane Stephens after losing the opening set in the third round and had to go the distance in the round of 32 after Maria Sakkari won the second set in a tiebreaker. She was frustrated Wednesday with Pironkova’s backhand wizardry and varied pace early on. Yet, Williams wasn’t done. Pironkova knew it, too.

“Definitely, the first set I think I was in control of the match. I was doing all kinds of shots, and everything went in my way. But you, know, I was expecting that it’s not going to last forever,” Pironkova said with a smile during a video interview. “I was expecting that she’s going to try different things and she’s going to put more power on her shots, and that’s what she did.”

Tsvetana Pironkova reacts during her match against Serena Williams.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

Pironkova, 32, reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 2010 and peaked at No. 31 in the rankings that year. After playing at Wimbledon in 2017 she took time off to give birth and raise her son Alexander, and she considered staying retired before realized she craved another challenge. The shutdown of the tennis tour put her return on hold for nearly six months, but she made up for lost time in New York with notable wins over No. 10 seed Garbine Muguruza in the second round and No. 18 Donna Vekic in the third round before she outlasted Alize Cornet in a two-hour and 49 minute match in the round of 16.

She started off strong on Wednesday, breaking Williams’ serve in the fifth game of the first set and holding for 4-2. She won the set on her third set point, with a backhand winner.

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Williams began to get a better read on Pironkova’s serve in the second set and won five straight games, three to close out the second set and two to go up a break and consolidate the break in the third set. Pironkova held serve to close Williams’ lead to 2-1, but Williams fired two aces to hold for 3-1 and never looked back.

American Jennifer Brady has advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Open with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan on Tuesday.

“Her serve, obviously it’s [an] incredible weapon in tennis terms,” Pironkova said. “There were a lot less unforced errors in the second set and in the third set it was like, no errors at all.”

Overall, Williams had 45 winners and 24 unforced errors, to 27 winners and 26 unforced errors by Pironkova. “She played unbelievable,” Williams said.

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Both women were often reminded that it was unusual to see a matchup of elite players who also are mothers as is Azarenka, who is mother to a 3-year-old boy. “This shows you how tough moms are,” Williams said. “When you can birth a baby, you can do anything.”

She still hasn’t tied Margaret Court’s Grand Slam singles record, though she reached the finals at Wimbledon and at the U.S. Open in 2018 and 2019. On Wednesday, when challenged sternly, she switched hands and switched gears and showed she has a lot left in reserve.

Elliott is reporting from Los Angeles.


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