NEW YORK – It was the latest installment in the tennis battle everyone wanted to see: Serena vs. Venus.
As the Williams sisters faced off for the fifth time during their remarkable U.S. Open runs at Flushing Meadows, it was Serena who held off her big sister to win in three sets and book a place in the semi-finals.
A visibly emotional Serena appeared to hold back tears before serving an ace to end the match, winning 6-2, 1-6, 6-3.
“It’s a really great moment, she’s the toughest player I’ve ever played in my life and the best person I know,” she said in an interview on court after the match.
“It’s going against your best friend, and at the same time going against the greatest competitor for me in women’s tennis. So it was really difficult today.”
Although Venus was the underdog going into the match, she challenged Serena’s dominance early on. After losing her serve twice in the first seven games to drop the first set, Venus came roaring back to win the second set after a slew of uncharacteristic Serena mistakes.
Ultimately, however, she could not keep up with the best player in the game right now.
“When I’m playing her I don’t think of her as my sister ‘cos she’s playing well, she’s hitting so many big serves and running a lot of balls down,” the younger Williams added. “When you’re in the moment you don’t really think about it.”
It was clear from the start that neither sister was in the mindset to ease up on the other, with Venus contesting line calls early on, and Serena clenching her fist and shrieking in celebration after breaking Venus in the fifth game.
Serena served 12 aces and committed 22 unforced errors to Venus’s eight aces and 15 unforced errors.
Her semi-final opponent is Italian Roberta Vinci, the world No. 43 who has not beaten her in four career attempts.
“She’s going to present a completely different game from my last four matches,” Williams said of Vinci. “She has nothing to lose, I don’t either, so we’re going to go out and have a lot of fun.”
Grand Slam within reach
Serena Williams is now only two victories away from completing her first career calendar Grand Slam, having won all three of the previous majors in 2015. No female player has achieved the feat since Steffi Graf in 1988 (and no man has done it since Rod Laver in 1962).
The U.S. Open defending champion has already claimed a so-called “Serena Slam,” having won the last four majors in a row, and is on pace for one of the greatest runs ever in professional tennis.
The feat is made even more remarkable by Serena playing her best tennis at what was considered an advanced age in the game. Her Wimbledon title in July broke the mark for the oldest singles victory in a grand slam tournament by a female at 33 years and 289 days.
Perhaps the most astounding statistic of all is the gap between Serena and World No. 2 Simona Halep in WTA point totals: Serena’s tally of 12,721 is more than double Halep’s 6,130. This, despite Serena playing two less tour matches over the past 52 weeks, not to mention the 10 more years of wear and tear on the courts over the 23-year-old Romanian.
A storied sibling rivalry
As professionals, the sisters first met in a grand slam — the second round of the 1998 Australian Open, with Venus winning in straight sets. Serena now holds a 16 -11 edge over Venus in overall competition.
But that hardly means playing Venus is a stress-free affair for the six-time U.S. Open champion.
“The only player in the draw I don’t want to play, not only because she’s my sister, but for me she’s the best player,” the 33-year-old Serena said of Venus, a former No. 1 herself who is now ranked No. 23 in the world.
“She has beaten me so many times,” added Serena, who has now defeated her sister 16 times in their previous 27 meetings, including nine of their previous grand slam encounters and three out of five U.S. Open battles.
“She’s a player that knows how to win, knows how to beat me and knows my weaknesses better than anyone.”
Serena’s imposing game, force of will, and hunger have made the American especially difficult to stop at tennis’ four major tournaments, with the 33-year old having a winning percentage of close to 90% in the grand slams.
“When she is in those events is where she really turns it on,” former world No. 4 Samantha Stosur told CNN.
Williams has, in fact, walked away from a major 39 times without hoisting the trophy but those defeats have been spread over 17 years and it hasn’t happened since Wimbledon in 2014, when Alize Cornet shocked her in the third round.
If Serena reaches and wins Saturday’s final, it will be her 22nd slam singles title, matching Graf’s Open Era record and will leave the American just two shy of Margaret Court’s all-time mark.
Prior to Tuesday’s match, the two sisters most recently met at Wimbledon in July, where Serena claimed a comfortable win before going on to lift the title for the sixth time. The highly superstitious Serena could view her repeat victory over Venus as a positive sign.
Cilic through to semi-finals
Over in the men’s draw, defending champion Marin Cilic of Croatia is through to the semi-finals after an arduous victory over crowd favorite Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. The Frenchman battled back from two sets down and staved off four match points before succumbing in five sets, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4. Cilic called the victory “a huge mental fight.”
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic will take on Spaniard Feliciano López in the late match at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Should Djokovic advance, No. 9 seed Cilic will have his work cut out for him. The Croatian champion holds a 13-0 career record against Cilic, including a recent straight sets effort during the Wimbledon quarterfinals.