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Pursuit of perfection: Serena soars

By Richard Osborn
Wednesday, September 3, 2014

WHAT HAPPENED: Two-time defending champion and world No. 1 Serena Williams is into the US Open semifinals for the fourth straight year, thanks to a straight-sets 6-3, 6-2 win over No. 11 Flavia Pennetta in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“It feels so special to be back in the semifinals for the first time this year, especially here in New York in my home country,” said Williams.

The matchup of 32-year-olds got off to an unexpected start. Pennetta, apparently undaunted by her lopsided 0-5 career head-to-head against Williams, broke the 17-time Grand Slam champion twice in the opening set while sprinting to a 3-0 edge. But Williams, resplendent in a black-and-white leopard print dress, stormed back with six unanswered games to snatch the set from the Italian in 29 minutes.    

Pennetta, who was bidding for her second career Grand Slam semi after reaching the Final Four here last year, tried to claw her way back into the match in the second set but Williams would have none of it. The only American singles star alive in New York continued to dictate play from the baseline – she would tally 31 winners on the night. With the set knotted at 2-all, Williams chased down a Pennetta volley and answered it with a huge forehand pass from well beyond the baseline. A point later she had her fourth break of the match.

Williams would go on to serve out the match in 1 hour, 3 minutes. She registered seven aces, and won 75 percent of her first-serve points (24 of 32).

Awaiting Williams is first-time semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova, a 6-4, 6-2 winner over two-time US Open finalist Victoria Azarenka earlier in the day. Although Williams is 3-1 against Makarova, the Russian did score an upset of the American in the round of 16 at the Australian Open in 2012.

WHAT IT MEANS: Williams, who earlier this week called herself a “perfectionist,” remained an unblemished 10-0 in sets won-lost over five rounds in Flushing Meadows, where she’s shooting for her sixth title. Remarkably, Williams is the only Top-8 seed remaining in the draw. Even more jarring, she was appearing in just her first major quarterfinal of the season, having suffered early-round exits at the Australian Open (fourth round), Roland Garros (second round) and Wimbledon (third round). It's something that’s only happened twice since she made her tour debut as a 17-year-old wunderkind back in 1998.

When you’re on the heels of history – Williams is only one Slam title away from tying Hall of Fame legends Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert on the all-time honor roll – a heightened sense of urgency can make anything short of a title run seem like an all-out failure. A trophy on the final Sunday of the US Open would go a long way toward saving Williams’ 2014 campaign, turning her so-called "lost year" into one to remember.

THE QUESTION: Williams versus Pennetta marked the first time since the 1989 US Open that two players age 32 or older had advanced to the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. With the average age of players at the top of the women’s game on the rise and the game only getting more physical, are teen breakthroughs at the Slams a thing of the past?