Serena Williams caught up with Chris Evert on Thursday night at the United States Open, claiming her 101st singles victory and doing it in deeply convincing fashion.
With the win, Williams advanced to the Open final on Saturday, when she will try, once again, to catch another great of the game: Margaret Court.
Williams, the No. 8 seed, certainly looked ready for the challenge after her 6-3, 6-1 demolition of the fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina in the semifinals.
She has overwhelmed so many worthy opponents under the lights and under pressure in her career, which has stretched across three decades.
Add this victory to the list. Svitolina might not be a Grand Slam champion, but she is a stylish counterpuncher with excellent foot speed who has worn down plenty of strong opponents in recent seasons, including Williams in the round of 16 at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
For at least a little while on Thursday, it seemed as if this semifinal also would turn into a match of attrition. The first two games required 16 minutes as Williams saved three break points on her way to winning the opening game and then worked her way through a six-deuce game to break Svitolina’s serve.
But the rest of the match was much more of a sprint than a marathon as Williams cracked winners and big serves and feasted on Svitolina’s second serve.
“I know how she can play,” Williams said of Svitolina. “I just wanted to not get off to a slow start and just try to hang in there.”
Mission accomplished in just one hour and 10 minutes. By the end of this rout, Svitolina looked dazed by Williams’s superior power and superior tennis.
Williams did not just blast away: She did a fine job of generating sharp angles with her groundstrokes that kept Svitolina from camping out too far behind the baseline and settling into a rhythm.
Williams also changed the pace on occasion, hitting drop shots and even, in a very rare move for her, deploying serve-and-volley tactics to save a break point in the first set.
“Don’t expect that again,” she said later. “What am I doing at the net? Let me get back to the baseline!”
As the match progressed, Williams was even beating Svitolina at her own game, winning extended baseline rallies.
But the shot that set the tone for Williams was the same as it has been for more than 20 years: her first serve. She hit it particularly well against Svitolina, and her average first-serve speed of 108.3 miles per hour was by far her highest of the tournament so far.
“I think she knows what she has to do,” Svitolina said. “She has unbelievable strength. There’s lots of power behind her shots all the time. That’s what makes her an unbelievable, legendary tennis player. On the important moments, she steps up, always steps up, always brings her best game.”
Svitolina was understandably impressed on Thursday, but in truth, Williams has not always produced her best tennis at the most important moments in the last two seasons.
For the fourth time in 14 months, Williams is just one match away from giving Court company by winning her 24th Grand Slam singles title.
Williams has been chasing Court’s record since she returned to the tour last year, about six months after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia.
Williams is well aware that she is running out of time to reach No. 24: She will turn 38 later this month. But despite injuries and a talented group of young players, she keeps making her way into major finals.
After defeating Svitolina, Williams will play for the title against the winner of Thursday night’s second semifinal between No. 13 seed Belinda Bencic and No. 15 seed Bianca Andreescu.
Neither Bencic nor Andreescu has played in a Grand Slam final, which has become a routine for Williams. This will be her 10th in singles at the U.S. Open.
Her record in major finals is 23-9, and this appearance comes 20 years after she won her first Grand Slam singles title — the 1999 U.S. Open at age 17. It also comes one year after she was beaten in the Open final by Naomi Osaka in a match that turned ugly as Williams clashed with the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, over a series of code-of-conduct violations.
The crowd turned against Ramos, booing during and after the match, and Osaka ended up in tears at the award ceremony for her first Grand Slam title.
Clearly, there will be mental challenges to overcome as well as tactical problems to solve when Williams returns to Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday.
It is a place where she has experienced joy, winning six U.S. Open singles titles, most recently in 2014. It is also a place where she has been known to lose control of various circumstances, including her temper.
Now, there are also doubts about Williams’s ability to produce her finest tennis with a major title at stake. She won 21 of her first 25 Grand Slam finals but has lost five of her last seven.
Remarkably, she has yet to win a title of any kind since the 2017 Australian Open while she was in the early stage of her pregnancy. Williams has now played in seven Grand Slam events since returning, reaching four finals.
Last season, she was beaten in the Wimbledon final by Angelique Kerber and by Osaka in the U.S. Open final. After a difficult, injury-filled stretch this year, she found her form again at Wimbledon but was routed, 6-2, 6-2, in the final by Simona Halep.
Second set: Williams wins, 6-1
Serena Williams completes a rout.
The beginning was a battle, but the end was a rout. Williams closed out Elina Svitolina on her second match point, blazing a backhand winner down the line to end with a bang after 1 hours 10 minutes.
Williams dominated all categories: she hit 34 winners to Svitolina’s 11, including 15-4 in the second set. In forehand winners in the match, Williams led, 13- 2. Williams won 11 of 16 points at the net, compared to 2 of 7 for Svitolina.
Williams also won 10 of 13 rallies that lasted nine or more shots, a particularly impressive number against a defender like Svitolina.
Second set: Williams 4, Svitolina 1
Serena Williams is in control.
Williams is now leading by a set and double break, 6-3, 4-1, after again breaking Svitolina, this time at love. Williams has won 10 straight points; the most spectacular was her chasing down a Svitolina drop shot in the third point of the fifth game, sending it back for a forehand flick winner that brought the partisan crowd to its feet.
Second set: Williams 2, Svitolina 1
Serena Williams stays ahead.
Williams now leads by a set and a break, up by 2-1 in the second set. Williams earned her first break point of the second set by winning a 14-shot rally full of defensive scrambling, ultimately getting the best of Svitolina in an exchange of backhands.
Williams made an unforced error with her forehand to squander the first chance, but quickly earned a second break point. On that second chance, Williams pounded a weak second serve from Svitolina with her backhand, and Svitolina could not muster a response.
First set: Williams wins, 6-3
Serena Williams takes the first set.
Williams took the first set over Elina Svitolina, 6-3.
Williams held on to the break she earned in Svitolina’s opening service game, saving six break points in the set over all. Williams was able to dictate rallies frequently, and hit 19 winners to Svitolina’s seven, while having only one more unforced error than Svitolina (11 to 10).
Williams closed out the set with a 116 m.p.h. serve that Svitolina returned into the net.
Williams is 94-1 when winning the first set at the U.S. Open; her lone loss came in a 2015 semifinal against Roberta Vinci.
First set: Williams 4, Svitolina 1
Serena Williams holds off a challenge.
After Svitolina got on the board with a hold in the fourth game, Williams has held onto her advantage, saving three more break points, from 0-40 down, to go up by 4-1.
Perhaps showing her ease at the moment, Williams saved the second with a serve-and-volley, the first time in the entire tournament she has used that tactic.
First set: Williams 3, Svitolina 0
Serena Williams jumps to an early lead.
The first two games of the first U.S. Open semifinal were battles. Williams, serving to open, needed to fend off three break points before holding.
In Svitolina’s opening service game, she double-faulted on two game points and then staved off two break points before Williams converted the third to go up 2-0, smacking an easy backhand return winner off a 79 m.p.h. second serve.
The third game was far simpler for Williams, who held at love to bring the match to its first changeover after 18 minutes. She sat down with a 3-0 lead as thousands of fans who had been waiting in the stadium corridors scurried to their seats.
A first-time finalist is guaranteed.
Thursday’s second semifinal will feature two first-time Grand Slam semifinalists, as the 13th-seeded Belinda Bencic, 22, will face 15th-seeded Bianca Andreescu, 19, in a match between prodigies who could have arrived to this stage even faster, if not for injuries.
Though they have never played, they will recognize much in each other. Bencic won the 2015 Rogers Cup in Toronto at 18; Andreescu won the title there last month, at 19. Both are known for preternatural court sense and comfort playing all-court games.
Ranked 178th at the end of last season, Andreescu has soared up the rankings despite not playing a full schedule. She reached the final in Auckland, New Zealand, in the first week of the year, won a small tournament in Newport Beach, Calif., and then surged to the title at Indian Wells, Calif., one of the biggest WTA tournaments outside the Grand Slams.
Midway through the Miami Open the following week, Andreescu was sidelined by a shoulder injury that kept her off the tour for most of the next four months. When she returned in August at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, her home country’s largest tournament, she continued her winning ways by taking the title.
After drawing overflow crowds to small courts for her first two matches in New York, Andreescu has won her last three in Arthur Ashe Stadium, including victories over the two-time U.S. Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki in the third round; against the qualifier Taylor Townsend in the fourth round; and over 25th-seeded Elise Mertens in the quarterfinals Wednesday.
Bencic also has surged up the rankings after finishing last year at 37th. After winning the Hopman Cup with her Swiss countryman Roger Federer to start her season, Bencic won the prestigious WTA event in Dubai, pulling off four consecutive wins over top-10 players: No. 9 Aryna Sabalenka, No. 2 Simona Halep, No. 6 Svitolina and No. 4 Petra Kvitova.
After beating No. 1 Naomi Osaka at Indian Wells and Madrid, Bencic defeated her for the third time this year in the fourth round of the U.S. Open. In her first Grand Slam quarterfinal in five years, Bencic beat No. 23 Donna Vekic in straight sets to make her first major semifinal.