Serena Williams eyes Slam record in U.S. Open final; this time is different

Serena Williams
AP
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NEW YORK — Serena Williams takes the court for a Grand Slam singles final on Saturday, looking to tie the record of 24 titles and her first as a mom. She has done this three times before in the last 14 months. She struck out each time.

“It’s totally different situation now, because now she can move,” said her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, one day before Williams plays Canadian 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu in the U.S. Open final at 4 p.m. ET. “She was in the three finals because she’s the best competitor of all times, not because she was ready.”

Mouratoglou said Williams’ physical fitness is at an apex since she had daughter Olympia on Sept. 1, 2017, which 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 returned to make finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2018, after withdrawing from the French Open with a pectoral muscle injury. She lost those championship matches to Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka.

The Osaka defeat in the U.S. Open final was marred by Williams’ controversy with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, but it must be said that at the time Osaka was already up one set and a break.

“I”m definitely more ready than last year,” Williams said after destroying quarterfinal foe Wang Qiang 6-1, 6-0 in 44 minutes on Tuesday, “although I thought I was playing really well last year.”

If it wasn’t for her health, Williams might already have tied Margaret Court‘s record 24 Slams this year.

She was en route to the Australian Open semifinals in January before rolling her ankle on the first of her four quarterfinal match points and then losing six straight games to exit. She’s said she shouldn’t have played the French Open after withdrawing from a tune-up event with a knee injury.

She was bounced in the fourth round, which led many to question if, at 37, her chances were dwindling. Williams bounced back at Wimbledon, reaching the final, but ran into Simona Halep playing the match of her life. Mouratoglou also said that Williams’ knee injury hampered her until 10 days before that major.

“Her opportunities are running out,” analyst Chris Evert said before the U.S. Open. “I think this and maybe the Australian Open could be the last two.”

Williams proved Mouratoglou prophetic this week with ruthless efficiency. It’s the first time she hasn’t dropped a set in the three matches preceding a Grand Slam final since she won the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant.

But Mouratoglou also predicted before the event that the 15th seed Andreescu would make the final. Andreescu, who was born after Williams won her first Slam at the 1999 U.S. Open, hasn’t lost a completed match in six months. But that statistic is misleading, because she has dealt with more injury problems than Williams this spring and summer.

After winning Indian Wells, she missed the French Open and Wimbledon with a shoulder injury. Andreescu played Williams for the first time at their last pre-U.S. Open tournament last month. But Williams withdrew with back spasms after four games.

That led to a moment that went viral on tennis Twitter. Andreescu walked from her chair to comfort the crying legend.

“I’ve watched you you’re whole career,” Andreescu told her in what had to be one of their first conversations, “and you’re a f—ing beast.”

And that’s what Andreescu must face in her first major final. A year ago, a 208th-ranked Andreescu lost in the first round of U.S. Open qualifying. Should she conquer the beast, it would be the fewest number of Grand Slam main draw appearances (four) before winning a title since Maria Sharapova at 2004 Wimbledon. (Sharapova was also the last teenager to win a Slam)

Saturday’s final also represents the largest age gap in Grand Slam history. In the other six finals with the largest gaps, the younger player won. The younger finalist, if not overcome by the occasion, can play fearless.

Can Andreescu tame the beast? Or will Williams join three other moms to win Slams in the last 50 years — Kim Clijsters, Evonne Goolagong and Court.

Williams has done little talking about the enormity of another final, but provided a glimpse into her mind after Tuesday’s quarterfinals. As she waved to an adoring Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd, she appeared to mouth the words, “I’m coming for it.”

“Serena had to experience a bit of pressure in her life,” Mouratoglou said. “And you can’t think that she’s not good dealing with pressure.”

MORE: Roger Federer undecided on Olympics

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Noah Lyles clips Trayvon Bromell in personal best at New Balance Indoor Grand Prix

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Noah Lyles got his 2023 off to a personal-best start, beating Trayvon Bromell in a photo finish in the 60m at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix on Boston on Saturday.

Lyles, the world 200m champion, ran 6.51 seconds. Bromell, the world 100m bronze medalist, also ran 6.51. Lyles prevailed by two thousandths of a second.

“I’ve been waiting on this for a long time,” Lyles, whose personal best was 6.55, told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “We’re not just coming for the 200m world record. We’re coming for all the world records.”

Lyles is running the 60m to better his start as he bids to add the 100m to his 200m slate come the outdoor season that starts in the spring.

Grant Holloway extended a near-nine-year, 50-plus-race win streak in the 60m hurdles, clocking 7.38 seconds, nine hundredths off his world record. Olympic teammate Daniel Roberts was second in 7.46. Trey Cunningham, who took silver behind Holloway in the 110m hurdles at last July’s world outdoor championships, was fifth in 7.67.

Aleia Hobbs won the women’s 60m in 7.02 seconds, one week after clocking a personal-best 6.98 to become the third-fastest American in history after Gail Devers and Marion Jones (both 6.95). Hobbs, 26, placed sixth in the 100m at last July’s world championships.

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, the Olympic and world 400m hurdles champion competing for the first time since August, and Jamaican Shericka Jackson, the world 200m champion, were ninth and 10th in the 60m heats, just missing the eight-woman final.

In the women’s pole vault, Bridget Williams, seventh at last year’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, upset the last two Olympic champions — American Katie Moon and Greek Katerina Stefanidi. Williams won with a 4.63-meter clearance (and then cleared 4.71 and a personal-best 4.77). Stefanidi missed three attempts at 4.63, while Moon went out at 4.55.

The indoor track and field season continues with the Millrose Games in New York City next Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock.

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Birk Irving, last man on Olympic team, extends breakout season with Mammoth win

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One year ago, Birk Irving was the last man to make the four-man U.S. Olympic ski halfpipe team. Since, he continued to climb the ranks in arguably the nation’s strongest discipline across skiing and snowboarding.

Irving earned his second World Cup win this season, taking the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain, California, on Friday.

Irving posted a 94-point final run, edging Canadian Brendan Mackay by one point. David Wise, the two-time Olympic champion who won his fifth X Games Aspen title last Sunday, was third.

A tribute was held to 2015 World champion Kyle Smaine, a U.S. halfpipe skier who died in an avalanche in Japan last Sunday.

“We’re all skiing the best we have because we’re all skiing with Kyle in our hearts,” Irving said, according to U.S. Ski and Snowboard. “We’re skiing for him, and we know he’s looking down on us. We miss you Kyle. We love you. Thank you for keeping us safe in the pipe today.”

Irving also won the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, Colorado, on Dec. 17. Plus, the 23-year-old from Colorado had his best career X Games Aspen finish last Sunday, taking second.

The next major event is the world championships in Georgia (the country, not the state) in early March. Irving was third at the last worlds in 2021, then fifth at the Olympics last February.

The U.S. has been the strongest nation in men’s ski halfpipe since it debuted at the Olympics in 2014. Wise won the first two gold medals. Alex Ferreira won silver and bronze at the last two Olympics. Aaron Blunck is a world champion and X Games champion.

Irving is younger than all of them and has beaten all of them at multiple competitions this season.

New Zealand’s Nico Porteous, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, hasn’t competed since the Games after undergoing offseason knee surgery.

In snowboarding events at Mammoth, Americans Julia Marino and Lyon Farrell earned slopestyle wins by posting the top qualification scores. The finals were canceled due to wind.

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