It was not to be.
Serena Williams' latest bid to win that elusive 24th Grand Slam title ended Thursday night when she was upset by unseeded Victoria Azarenka, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, at Ashe Stadium in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.
The 38-year-old Williams remains just one Grand Slam title short of tying Margaret Court’s all-time record. A win would have put her in the final for the third straight year and set up a much-anticipated rematch with Naomi Osaka, whom she lost to in a controversial final in 2018.
Osaka, the No. 4 seed, advanced to the final earlier in the night with a 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-3 win over American Jennifer Brady.
Azarenka entered the night 0-10 against Williams in Grand Slam matches and hadn’t played in a major final in seven years, but you wouldn’t have known it from the mental fortitude she showed in coming back after a shaky first set.
Williams, after a string of unforced errors, dropped the second set and fell into a quick 1-0 hole in the third. Williams then stretched her Achilles early in the final set and needed a medical timeout after she limped back to the benches. She said after the match that it did not ultimately affect her play.
“I knew it was never over until it was over,” Azarenka said. “I dug myself a big hole. She dug me a big hole. I had to climb my way out game by game.”
Said Williams: “I started really strong and she just kept fighting. She started playing better and better. Maybe I took too much off the gas pedal at some point.”
Williams and Azarenka entered the match with a long history. Thursday was their 23rd meeting; the only player Williams has played more is her sister, Venus, whom she has played 31 times. Williams now is 18-5 alltime against Azarenka, including wins in the U.S. Open final in 2012 and 2013.
Azarenka was once thought of as one of the few players who could challenge Williams on hard courts. After winning the Miami Open in 2016, however, Azarenka got pregnant and gave birth to her son, Leo. A protracted custody battle forced her to take a break away from the game as it prohibited her from extensive travel.
She spent the past four years out of the top 50 but rose to No. 27 last week after a walkover against Osaka in the Western & Southern tournament. Still, she was unseeded entering the U.S. Open and few expected to her to dominate opponents like she has the last couple of weeks. Azarenka entered the match against Williams having won 10 straight matches, including a 6-1, 6-0 destruction of Elise Mertens in the quarterfinals.
Azarenka, 31, believes she is playing the best tennis of her career and was clearly thrilled to be back on the court against Williams, a fellow mother whom she considers a friend.
“I like playing against the best,” Azarenka said before the match. “That’s what I’m working hard for, to play on the biggest stages against the best players. There’s no one as tough mentally as Serena. I love that challenge.”