But how far back is she on arriving in the fourth round of the US Open, aiming at her fourth title, the first since 2008?
Having chased away two earlier hapless foes on the loss of three games, Serena Williams was past scrimmaging. It was all changed yesterday, a warm breezy afternoon with about 15,000 witnesses at Ashe Stadium. It was time for the real, bygone Sister Serena to go to work in a blood-raspberry frock.
Seeded No. 28 (what was the management committee drinking?), Serena touched off a mad matinee that left the crowd puzzled and roaring, gasping and cheering, wondering if Serena could actually blow such a big lead - and come within two points of falling to a spunky lady from Belarus, Victoria Azarenka.
Serena did pull a decision from the fire, 6-1, 7-6 (7-5), after all, but Azarenka, No. 4, seemed to grow up before our eyes. At the 17-minute mark, Serena had powered her way to a 5-0 lead. Azarenka was helpless under the baseline barrages. “It was painful. To have somebody just going at you, like that, it’s a little bit painful,’’ she said. “You know, you try to do your best, but somebody’s on fire.’’
Here she was, one of the world’s best, and she was being treated like a punching bag. If this were a prizefight some humanitarian would have screamed, “Stop the fight!’’
However, Azarenka scrambled. If she was as blue as her sky-toned dress, shoelaces, and fingernails, she didn’t show it.
“Instead she lifted her game,’’ applauded Serena, who is 6-1 against her. “And she nearly made it.’’
Said Azarenka, “When somebody is coming at you like that, I just had to find some space on the court. She was pushing me. I was a little bit tight in the beginning, had to loosen up. I just tried to be aggressive, to step it up, but it took a little while.’’
Azarenka joined in the slugging that went on right to the end. It was anything you can hit hard, I can hit harder. They played deep and to the sidelines, mostly line drives that nearly smoked. Serena banged 12 aces, most over 100 miles per hour.
“Amazing that she is healthy,’’ Azarenka gushed. “Serena is playing at the highest level I’ve seen her. Definitely she should win.’’
Still Azarenka kept battling, ducked three match points to 4-5, another to 5-6, drilled her way into the tiebreaker and had a set point at 6-5, but Serena closed it with forehands.
Serena is carrying the family load, what with Venus being sidelined by an autoimmune disorder, after winning her first-rounder. Next up for Serena is ex-French Open champ and former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic.
It looks as if the title may be settled in a semifinal featuring Serena and No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. But don’t overlook the growling Italian, Francesca Schiavoni, current No. 8, who won the French last year. “I am not like Serena - boom, boom, boom,’’ Schiavoni said. “I have to work harder than anybody else to make my points.’’
Working hard had nothing to do with her escape from South African Chanelle Scheepers, 5-7, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3. “She had a match point on me [10th game, second set], and hit a terrific backhand past me,’’ Schiavoni said. “But it was an inch long. That kept me in the tournament.’’
Schiavoni, 31, is the most successful of a slim crop of Italians. “I think we have talent, but we don’t work so good when we are young,’’ she said. “But there is a lot of good material first. Second, we play because we like to play. It’s the key. But we are getting better. In 10 years we will have much more Italians. But not like China, of course, because they are too many.’’
She credits her late-blooming success on experience.
“Physically you have to work every day if you want to be fit,’’ Schiavoni said. “I think this is the difference between young girls and old.’’
Sister Serena is now in the category of old in tennis.