Serena Williams was forced to dig deep to secure a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 US Open quarter-final victory over unseeded Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova on Wednesday, keeping alive her latest bid for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title.
Williams, a six-times champion in New York, struggled with Pironkova’s slice forehand early and was at risk of her earliest US Open exit in 14 years until she used her experience to find a way back against a resurgent Pironkova.
"I’m happy to be standing here ... because at one point I was pretty close to not being here," Williams said during the on-court winner's interview. "I keep fighting and that’s one thing that I am super excited about is I never give up."
For Pironkova, who dropped to 0-5 in career head-to-head meetings with Williams, the loss marked the end of a surprise New York run given this was her first professional tournament since Wimbledon in 2017.
Pironkova, back after an absence of more than three years during which she had a baby in early 2018, made a nice start as she consolidated a break to go ahead 4-2 in the first set.
After Williams saved two set points on serve to pull within 4-5, the Bulgarian held her nerve and secured the opener with a backhand crosscourt winner.
In the second, Williams won a 24-point rally to break and open up a 5-3 lead and then, after falling behind 15-30 on her serve, fired three consecutive aces to force a decider.
Williams broke to start the third set in a game during which she even hit a left-handed shot, and never looked back as Pironkova suddenly started to run out of gas.
"Definitely was feeling it in my legs," Williams said of her flat start.
"In the beginning I was a little bit fatigued for whatever reason so obviously I can’t do that if I want to keep winning so I am going to try to figure that out."
Williams has been stuck on 23 Grand Slam singles titles, one shy of Margaret Court’s record, since winning the 2017 Australian Open.
Up next for the 38-year-old Williams, who has been pushed to three sets in her last three victories, will be former World No 1 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in Thursday’s semi-final.
Azarenka clobbers Mertens to enter semis
A loose and confident Victoria Azarenka overpowered Elise Mertens 6-1, 6-0 on Wednesday to advance to the semi-finals of the US Open where she will face a familiar foe in Serena Williams.
Azarenka, smiling and bobbing her head along to music being played during changeovers, spread the court with 21 winners to dominate 16th seed Mertens in their first career meeting.
She took the first set after the normally rock solid Belgian sent a forehand wide for her 13th unforced error of the frame.
And the 31-year-old Belarusian did not take her foot off the gas in the second, running Mertens around the court and sealing the win when her opponent dumped a backhand into the net.
Azarenka, who won her first title in four years at the Western & Southern Open last month, said she is appreciating her time on the court more than ever.
"I don’t think I have ever enjoyed tennis, to be quite honest," she said.
"I felt that it was a job and something you were meant to do. Winning, you enjoy it. Losing, I was so upset and for a couple of days I couldn’t function normally.
"Now nothing bothers me. I can say I am feeling the moment."
The win saw the two-time Grand Slam champion advance past the quarter-finals at a major for the first time since 2013 but a formidable foe stands in her way in the form of Williams, who defeated Azarenka in her two US Open final appearances in 2012 and 2013.
Williams holds an 18-4 lead in their head-to-head matchups, winning their most recent match at Indian Wells last year.
"Can it get any better?" Azarenka said of Thursday’s semi-final showdown with the American.
"It’s an amazing opportunity to play against a champion, somebody who I respect a lot and is my friend.
"So I’m so excited for the opportunity and I hope people are excited too. I hope it will be fun, it will be fun for me."