Serena Williams reacts during her quarterfinal win over Tsvetana Pironkova, of Bulgaria, on Wednesday. Williams is now two wins from her 24th Grand Slam title. Seth Wenig/Associated Press

 

NEW YORK — They were just two particular points from Serena Williams’ latest three-set comeback at the U.S. Open, yet they were pivotal and consisted of the sorts of lengthy exchanges filled with athleticism and brilliance that in any other, non-pandemic year would be marked by thousands of folks rising to their feet for delirious roars and raucous applause.

She needed both of these points to reverse a deficit that reached the scale of a set and a break after 45 minutes of her quarterfinal against Tsvetana Pironkova on a cloudy Wednesday in empty Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Williams needed both of these points during a five-game, match-altering run – along with her 20 aces – to end up on the right side of a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 score after more than two hours to get to the semifinals at Flushing Meadows for an 11th consecutive appearance.

“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, right?” Williams said.

Two more victories for Williams would allow her to claim a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title.

“In the beginning, I was a little fatigued, for whatever reason,” Williams said. “Obviously I can’t do that if I want to keep winning, so I need to figure that out.”

How big an upset would this have been if Pironkova had held on? Not only is she not seeded at Flushing Meadows, she doesn’t even appear in the WTA rankings at all – this was her first tournament of any sort in more than three years, because she left the tour to become a mother.

“It’s unbelievable,” Williams said about Pironkova’s impressive return to competition. “Wow. I couldn’t even do that.”

When the players stepped out onto the court, the stadium announcer – announcing for whom, exactly, was something of a mystery – referred to Pironkova, a 32-year-old from Bulgaria, as “Alexander’s mom” and then to Williams as “Olympia’s mom” during the pre-match introductions.

“It just shows me how tough moms are,” Williams said afterward.

“You play a match and you go home and you’re still changing diapers,” said Williams, whose daughter turned 3 on Sept. 1 and is a little older than Pironkova’s son. “It’s like a double life. It’s really surreal.”

The American, who turns 39 in less than three weeks, has won a total of six championships at the U.S. Open and was the runner-up four times, including in 2018 and 2019.

Williams last lost before the semifinals in New York all the way back in 2007, when Justine Henin eliminated her in the quarterfinals.

Williams is next headed to another U.S. Open showdown against Victoria Azarenka, who beat 16th-seeded Elise Mertens 6-1, 6-0 to reach the the semifinals.

Williams needed three sets to knock off Azarenka in the 2013 final. Williams also won the 2012 final in three sets in a match that saw Azarenka ahead 5–3 in the third set and serving for the match. Azarenka, one of nine mothers in this year’s field, won the Open-tuneup Western & Southern Open for her 21st career title. She made her first U.S. Open semifinal since 2013 and eighth overall.

The other women’s semifinal Thursday will be 2018 champion Naomi Osaka vs. No. 28 seed Jennifer Brady.

In the men’s quarterfinals Wednesday, 2019 runner-up Daniil Medvedev beat No. 10 Andrey Rublev 7-6 (6), 6-3, 7-6 (5) to return to the final four. At night, No. 2 Dominic Thiem beat No. 21 Alex de in straight sets to advance and set up a match with Medvedev, who hasn’t dropped a set in the tournament.

Williams also needed a comeback and the maximum number of sets to get through before defeating 15th-seeded Maria Sakkari 6-3, 6-7 (6), 6-3.

In Wednesday’s turnaround, the first key moment involved 24 strokes, the next-to-last a running cross-court forehand by Williams from wide of the doubles alley, and the last an on-the-run squash forehand by Pironkova that landed in the net, giving Williams a break and a 5-3 edge in the second set.

Williams raised her left fist aloft as her husband yelled from his front-row corner seat; Pironkova put a hand on her knee, smiled ruefully and squatted behind the baseline.

The other came in a four-deuce opening game of the final set, and began with the right-handed Williams taking a page out of old friend Maria Sharapova’s playbook by hitting a left-handed return of serve. Another 15 strokes followed, with Williams hitting a forehand passing shot that Pironkova volleyed into the tape of the net.

“That was intense,” Williams said. “I was just trying to do everything I can – whether righty or lefty.”

Pironkova dropped onto her back, chest heaving; she left so much sweat on the court that a ball person was beckoned to wipe it away with a towel. That afforded Williams a third break point, which was converted for a 1-0 lead when Pironkova sent a forehand long.

Williams then only added to the lead, her strokes finding targets better the longer the match went on. Her serve was especially good, as it usually is.

In contrast, Pironkova began to have more trouble on the longer points that she dominated early, winning the first half-dozen that lasted 10 strokes or more. Certainly understandable, give how long it had been since she participated in any competition, let alone one of this magnitude.

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