Down a set and a break to the unseeded Tsvetana Pironkova in the quarterfinals of the United States Open, Serena Williams was in danger of succumbing to a story line even better than her own on Wednesday.
Pironkova is not only unseeded. She is unranked and was playing in her first tour event in more than three years.
Not even Williams, a 38-year-old master of the comeback, has taken it to that extreme.
Pironkova, 32, is a tall Bulgarian veteran with an iconoclastic game who changes rhythm more often than Bohemian Rhapsody. She gave birth to a son, Alexander, in April 2018 and was uncertain whether she wanted to return to the tour at all.
She clearly made a wise decision and was in range if not quite on the brink of the biggest victory of her career on Wednesday before Williams came back to prevail, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.
“It just shows me how tough moms are,” said Williams, who has a 3-year-old daughter, Olympia. “Whenever you can give birth to a baby, honestly you can do anything. And I think we saw that with Tsvetana today.”
The hard-won victory gave Williams a spot in Friday’s semifinal against her longtime rival Victoria Azarenka or newcomer Elise Mertens, who were scheduled to play later on Wednesday.
Williams is now two rounds away from matching Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
Pironkova sliced forehands, punched flat backhands, hit perfectly disguised lob winners and hustled into the corners to extend rallies and sow plenty of seeds of doubt in her much more accomplished opponent.
But Williams, even without the same range or aura she has had in previous years, remains a supreme competitor and unmatched server.
She smacked 20 aces on Wednesday but she also battled Pironkova’s unorthodox methods with some of her own, twice being forced to return serves with her left hand and still winning the point after getting bamboozled by Pironkova’s cryptic delivery.
It was a sotto voce performance by Williams’s operatic standards. She was unusually restrained and quiet in the first set in this match, which was the first of the day in Arthur Ashe Stadium, beginning shortly after noon with the stands all but empty, as they have been throughout this tournament.
Williams had beaten Pironkova in their four previous matches, but she struggled to solve the riddle this time; she was off rhythm on her returns and erratic with her groundstrokes.
Her footwork seemed sluggish. “Definitely I was feeling it in a little in my legs,” she said. “For whatever reason, an hour in, I get more energy”
As she has so often, she found a way to change the course of the match and tap into her reserves and inner fire.
She got out of trouble repeatedly with big serves but also improved as the match progressed in how she coped with Pironkova’s unusual sliced forehand and low-bouncing shots. She needed to win several extended rallies to wrest control of the match, including a 24-shot exchange to break serve to 5-3 in the pivotal second set.
Williams is now 44-42 in Grand Slam singles matches when she loses the first set: an extraordinary record that makes her the only woman with more than 25 major matches to have a winning record in such instances.
”I’m happy to be standing here talking to you,” she said in an ESPN interview on court following the finish. “Because I think at one point I was pretty close to not being here. I keep fighting, and that’s something I’m super excited about. I never give up, and I have to keep going.”
Pironkova only was able to enter the U.S. Open by using a protected ranking, an option only available to her at this stage because of effective lobbying by stars like Williams and Azarenka, the other two working mothers in the women’s singles quarterfinals playing Wednesday.
Azarenka has a 3-year-old son, Leo, and together with Williams helped craft a WTA Tour rule change that allowed new mothers more time to use a protected ranking.
Williams returned to the tour in early 2018 with the clear goal of matching Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles titles. She has come remarkably close, reaching four Grand Slam singles finals: two at Wimbledon and two at the U.S. Open. But she has lost all four of those matches in straight sets and lost some of her ability to intimidate the opposition along the way.
She has played 10 matches since the restart of the tour last month: eight of them have gone the full three sets.
The victory over Pironkova did not appear to be as draining as some of her previous matches this summer, but it did come at a dangerous time. Williams has had a day off between each of her matches at this U.S. Open, but she will not get that luxury for the semifinals, which will be played on Thursday night.
Recovery will be critical, but she has winning records against both Azarenka (18-4) and Mertens (1-0).