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Serena Williams' fire still burns as she seeks record-tying title at U.S. Open

Serena Williams reacts after match point against Elina

Serena Williams reacts after match point against Elina Svitolina in a semifinal match during the U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean National Tennis Center on Thursday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Bill Clinton was president. “Friends” was the hot television show. And the Knicks had just played in the NBA Finals.

So much has changed since Serena Williams won her first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open in 1999. But one thing hasn’t.

Williams, who will attempt to win a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title Saturday when she faces Canada’s Bianca Andreescu in the U.S. Open final, wants to win as much as she did when she was a 17-year-old. Maybe even more.

Williams, who will turn 38 in a few weeks, does not need to tie Margaret Court’s record to be considered the greatest player of all time by most observers. Yet there is a beautiful sort of symmetry to having her do so here, at the same tournament where she won her first major title two decades ago.

After her win over Elina Svitolina in the semifinals Thursday, Williams joked that it seems as if her career has spanned five eras.

“I think it’s great. I think any way to be this far in my career, to be playing at this level with these amazing new players is cool,” she said.

Williams has been chasing Court’s record since she returned to the tour last year after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia. She had made it to a Grand Slam final three times since her return, and three times she lost in straight sets. The most painful of those losses was at the U.S. Open last year, when she was beaten by Naomi Osaka in a controversial match that featured three code-of-conduct violations against Williams.

Williams said she is more prepared and more relaxed for this tournament than she has been in a while.

“Is this the best opportunity?” she asked. “I don’t know. I literally haven’t thought about it this tournament. I’ve been way more chill.”

Two years after giving birth, Williams also is more physically ready to play in this match than she had been in other tournaments, said her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.

“When you don’t move well, you can’t be as confident as you should be, because if your ‘A’ game doesn’t work, you don’t have any other option, and for me that’s what happened,” he said Friday. “I think it’s a totally different situation now, because now she can move. If she needs to play the rally, she can play the rally. We have seen that, I think, a few times during the tournament. So there is no panic if she misses a bit more than usual. No problem. There are other options of play.”

Andreescu, the 19-year-old who stands between Williams and history, wasn’t even born when Williams won her first Grand Slam title.

A year ago, Andreescu was ranked 208th in the world and lost in the first round of her qualifying match at the U.S. Open. She now joins Pam Shriver and Venus Williams as the only women to make the final in her main draw debut.

“I don’t think I had heard of you a year ago,” Shriver, who now works for ESPN, told Andreescu after Thursday’s match.

Until she started powering past opponents in this year’s Open, Andreescu was most famous for having won the Rogers Cup final in August after Williams retired because of back spasms while trailing 3-1 in the first set. Andreescu gave a teary Williams a pep talk after the match, calling her a “beast” and saying she grew up watching her.

“I’ve always wanted to play Serena, Andreescu said. “I remember always telling my team I wanted to play her right before she retires. I’m really looking forward to it. She’s an amazing champion on and off the court. It’s going to be fun.”

Serena Williams Bianca Andreescu

37 Age 19

1995 Year turned pro 2017

23 Grand Slam titles 0

33 Grand Slam finals appearances 0

72 Career singles titles 2

811 Career matches won 30

137 Career matches lost 30

$90,643,816 Career prize money $2,417,873

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