Make no mistake about it. Serena Williams was in trouble.
Down a set and a break to a fellow mother who was playing in her first tour event in more than three years, the greatest player in the history of the game flirted dangerously with what would have been an embarrassing loss in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Tuesday.
Yet, as she has done so many times before, Williams was able to dig deep and use her sheer power to push past Tsvetana Pironkova, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.
It marked the third straight match that has gone three sets for Williams, who is now two wins away from tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles. Williams advances to Thursday’s semifinals, where she will play Victoria Azarenka, who routed No. 16 seed Elise Mertens, 6-1, 6-0, in a night match at Ashe Stadium.
“I’m ready to play three sets every match if I have to,” Williams said when asked about her slow start. “It doesn’t matter. A win is a win.”
Williams served 20 aces in the match, including three straight to close out the second set. She also came up with some unusual moves to counter the tempo-changing Pironkova. Twice she returned serves with her non-dominant left hand.
The match was billed as the battle of the moms as it marked the first time that two mothers have faced off this deep in a Grand Slam tournament. Williams is seeking her first Grand Slam title since the birth of her 3-year-old daughter, Olympia. Pironkova was playing in her first tournament match since Wimbledon in 2017.
Pironkova, who was unseeded in the tournament, came into the match on one of the most unexpected Grand Slam runs in recent history. She scored upset wins over Garbine Muguruza, Donna Vekic and Alize Cornet before running into Williams.
Pironkova, 32, gave serious consideration to retirement after giving birth to her son, Alexander, in April of 2018. She found, however, that she missed the competition and needed a challenge. She was able to get into the tournament as an unseeded player because of her protected ranking of 128 after a change of WTA rules regarding pregnancy leave.
“It just shows me how tough moms are,” Williams said. “Whenever you can give birth to a baby, honestly you can do anything. And I think we saw that with Tsvetana today.”
Williams had beaten Pironkova in their four previous matches, including two straight sets in 2015. Pironkova said she felt good early in the match.
“Definitely in the first set, I think I was in control of the match,” she said. “I was doing all kinds of shots, and everything went my way. But you know, I expecting it’s not going to last forever. I was expecting that she’s going to try different things and she’s going to put more power in her shots and that’s what she did.”
There were several key moments in the pivotal second set. After losing her first service game, Williams broke right back to make it 1-1. Later, in the eighth game, she won a 24-stroke baseline rally after Pironkova missed a drop shot. That gave her a break and made the score 5-3. On her ensuing serve, she served three straight aces to close out the set.
She then broke Pironkova in the first game of the third set to take control of the match for good.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, right?” said Williams, who has to finish the winner two more times this week in order to keep her date with history and tie Court.