Serena Williams started out like a ball of fire, but ended up flaming out in the U.S. Open semifinals Thursday night under a closed roof at Ashe Stadium.
Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles still is safe and Naomi Osaka has been left standing at the altar.
Osaka held up her part of the bargain by advancing to the finals earlier Thursday, but Williams failed to join her for a 2018 rematch. Williams tore ahead, winning the first set and looking unstoppable against Victoria Azarenka before the Belarus native gained her mojo and beat the 38-year-old Compton legend in a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 two-hour three-setter.
“I started really strong, then she just kept fighting,’’ a dejected Williams said. “She just changed and started playing better and better. Maybe I took a little too much off the gas pedal.’’
The crushing defeat kept Williams stuck on 23 Grand Slam victories. Williams hasn’t won a Slam since January 2017, when she captured the Australian Open.
“It’s obviously disappointing,’’ Williams said. “At the same time, I did what I could today. I feel like other times I’ve been close and I could have done better. Today I felt like I gave a lot. … She just started getting balls that she normally doesn’t get back.’’
The victory by Azarenka spoiled the potential rematch of the controversial 2018 Open finals between Osaka and Williams, during which Serena lost her cool at the chair umpire in a historic blow-up and lost the match.
Early in the third set and down a break Thursday, an exhausted Williams asked for a five-minute injury timeout for her Achilles tendon after she took a bad step. But Williams had her leg re-taped and seemed to get something out of the breather. She never showed any signs of limping when play resumed, but the stoppage wasn’t enough to quell Azarenka’s surge.
That was no excuse, said Williams.
“I ran for a shot. Off that first step that I took, it was a long point, it just overstretched,’’ Williams said. “It was pretty intense. Then that was that. It feels fine. It didn’t affect my play ultimately at all.’’
This was Williams’ best chance of stealing another Slam as six of the world’s top 10 players had decided not to play. Williams, who will turn 39 later this month, indicated she likely will go to the French Open in two weeks — at the very least she will make the trip to Paris.
The stands were fuller than at any time during the fortnight, with a good 100 people scattered around the arena.
It was a rollicking first two sets with a substantial amount of clapping. Azarenka started out nervous and tentative while Williams played like a monster.
“I was nervous and a little slow,’’ said Azarenka, who advanced to a Grand Slam final for the first time in seven years. “I had to match the intensity she was bringing.”
In a longtime rivalry, Williams had owned Azarenka 10-0 in majors before Thursday’s comeback.
Williams wiped her out in the first set in charging to a 4-0 lead, breaking Azarenka twice. With the roof closed, negating any wind, Williams hit full out and was blistering balls to both corners and crushing her first serve, winning 83 percent of those points. The Belarus native didn’t look ready for the fight.
Then it all changed in the second set as Azarenka was bouncing on the balls of her feet like a heavyweight prizefighter, screaming out “C’mon!” and eventually knocked Williams out.