New York: Six-time champion Serena Williams shook off a sluggish start to power past eighth-seeded Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 6-3 on Tuesday and into the US Open semi-finals.
The US superstar, chasing a record-equalling 24th major title, surrendered an early break to Pliskova, but she roared back with a streak of eight straight games to put away the opening set and take a 4-0 lead in the second against the woman who beat her in the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows in 2016.
“Well I don’t know,” Williams said of how she engineered the turnaround.
“The crowd was really rooting for me and I felt so bad because everyone out here was cheering and I wasn’t winning and I thought I’ve got to try harder.”
She finished the match with 13 aces and will take on Anastasija Sevastova for a place in the final after the 19th-seeded Latvian toppled defending champion Sloane Stephens 6-2, 6-3.
There was a wobble for Williams as she dropped her serve in the second set, coughing up one of her five double faults on break point as Pliskova narrowed the gap to 4-1.
Williams fell behind again in the seventh game, but erased a 0-40 deficit with a 112 mph (180 Km/h) service winner followed by a another service winner and an ace.
Pliskova got another chance when Williams batted a forehand into the net, but another booming serve, a backhand winner and an unreturnable serve saw her negotiate the danger.
Serving for the match at 5-3 Williams didn’t allow any room for doubt, holding at love with two aces and an overhead smash followed by one last ace.
“I really feel like right now I’m playing free because I was having a baby this time last year, so I have nothing to prove,” said Williams, who is seeking her first major title since her daughter Olympia was born on September 1 of 2017.
With a win she would break out of a tie with Chris Evert for most US Open titles, and equal Margaret Court’s all-time record for Grand Slams.
– Stephens ‘not connecting’ –
World number three Stephens, refused to blame the punishing afternoon heat and humidity for her lapses against Sevastova, including an inability to convert any of seven break chances in the opening set.
“When you don’t play big points well, the match can get away from you,” she said.
“I just really couldn’t get anything to connect. Even when I did have my break opportunities, I just wasn’t playing the points well at all. Mentally, physically, I just wasn’t connecting.”
Sevastova herself relies on variety more than power, and she caught a slow-moving Stephens with a number of drop shots and drop-shot lob combinations.
After taking a 4-1 lead in the second set, Sevastova admitted that memories of last year’s quarter-final against Stephens flashed across her mind.
Stephens was ranked 83rd in the world when she upset Sevastova in three sets at the same stage last year, trailing by a break in the third set before winning it in a tiebreaker.
Indeed Stephens fought back to narrow the gap to 4-3, but Sevastova grabbed another break with a well-timed drop shot for a 5-3 lead and sealed the victory on her third match point when a weary Sephens put a backhand into the net.
“I lost my nerves a little bit,” Sevastova admitted. “I think she lost also her nerves a little bit, it’s normal. It’s for semi-finals of US Open.”
The defeats of Stephens and Pliskova completed the exodus of top 10 seeds.
The semi-final lineup will be completed on Wednesday when Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro takes on 2017 runner-up Madison Keys and Japan’s Naomi Osaka faces Ukraine’s Lesia Tsurenko.