NEW YORK — Serena Williams is back in the U.S. Open final, one year after childbirth and life-threatening complications. One match win from tying the career Grand Slam singles titles record.
The 23-time major champion swept Latvian Anastasija Sevastova 6-3, 6-0 in Thursday’s semifinal to reach her second straight Slam final and first in Queens since 2014.
“A year ago, I was fighting, for literally my life in the hospital after I had the baby,” Williams said, her voice cracking in emotion, on court after winning 12 of the last 13 games. “So, every day I step out on this court, I am so grateful that I have an opportunity to play this sport, you know? No matter what happens in any match, semis, finals, I just feel like I’ve already won.”
She’ll face Naomi Osaka, one of the most promising players of the next generation, in the final Saturday at 4 p.m. ET.
Osaka, the first Japanese woman in a Slam final in the 51-year Open Era, beat 2017 U.S. Open runner-up Madison Keys 6-2, 6-4 later Thursday.
Keys was 0 for 13 on break points, squandering six of them on one game alone in the second set. How was Osaka able to hold her off?
“This is going to sound really bad, but I was just thinking, I really want to play Serena,” said Osaka, the soft-spoken, uniquely witted daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father who moved from Japan to the U.S. at age 3.
The rising 20-year-old Osaka swept Williams in their only meeting in March, though it was just Williams’ second tournament back from maternity leave. “I definitely wasn’t at my best,” Williams said Thursday. “I was breast-feeding at the time, so it was a totally different situation.”
“She’s the main reason why I started playing tennis,” Osaka said then, noting it took three games to overcome the nerves. “To detach myself a little bit from thinking that I’m playing against her and just try to think I’m playing against just a regular opponent was a little bit hard.”
Williams said the respect is mutual.
“These young ladies have been playing way longer consistently [than my comeback], so I just feel like they’re at a little bit of an advantage,” she said of Osaka and Keys while they were playing. “But I have an advantage of I have nothing to lose.”
The 16-year age difference between finalists is the second-largest in a women’s Grand Slam final, trailing only the 1991 U.S. Open between Martina Navratilova (34) and Monica Seles (17).
“I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a Grand Slam,” Osaka said. “I don’t dream to lose.”
Osaka won the sport’s fifth major — Indian Wells — in March, but came into the U.S. Open having lost three straight matches. She cried in the locker room at her last tournament.
“Because I thought, Wow, I’m really bad at tennis,” she said.
Williams has another name on her mind: Margaret Court, the 1960s and ’70s Australian star who won 24 Grand Slam singles titles. Asterisk: Court won 11 Australian Opens when many of the world’s top players did not play the event.
At 36 (three weeks from 37), Williams would become the oldest U.S. Open singles champion in the Open Era (Ken Rosewall) and the oldest overall since 1926.
And the second mother in the last 38 years to win a Grand Slam singles title. Belgian Kim Clijsters captured the 2009 U.S. Open, 18 months after childbirth, then added two more Grand Slam titles before retiring in 2012.
Williams was bedridden this time last year after giving birth to daughter Olympia on Sept. 1. The pregnancy was followed by pulmonary embolism complications that confined her to bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.
She is 15-1 in Grand Slam singles matches since her return, making the fourth round of the French Open before withdrawing with a pectoral muscle injury and taking runner-up at Wimbledon to Angelique Kerber.
“To come this far so fast, I’m just beginning, you guys, this has only been a few months,” Williams said. “I’m really looking forward to the rest of the year, next year. I’m really looking forward to the possibilities.”
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