Serena Williams advanced toward her goal of another Grand Slam record as she struggled through for a 4-6,6-3, 6-2 over fellow mother Tsvetana Pironkova on Wednesday at the US Open.
The six-time tournament winner was tested by a slow start in her quarter-final but recovered poise to post the win in two hours and a bit at the crowd-free quarantined tournament being played amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The match was the eighth which went the full distance since Williams made her return to the courts a month ago after the WTA virus lockdown was lifted.
She is now two wins away from reaching a record 24 singles titles at the Grand Slams, a record she has been chasing without success since 2017.
“This just shows how tough mothers are,” Williams said. “If you can birth a baby, you can do anything.”
Her Bulgarian challenger, who played her last match at 2017 Wimbledon before having a son in April, 2018, was one of nine mothers who began the fortnight under quarantine conditions with no fans present.
“She played unbelievable,” Williams said of Pironkova. “She last had a match three years ago.
“When I came back (after birth) I could barely win a match. You play a match, go home and are changing diapers.
“It’s a double life, really surreal.”
Pironkova secured the first break of the afternoon on her second chance, sending an untouchable backhand down the line to the far corner.
Pironkova, who reached a ranking high of 31st – the best-ever for a Bulgarian woman – increased her margin to 4-2 as Williams started to show some signs of frustration.
Pironkova earned a set point leading 5-3 but Williams swatted it away with a winner. A lob led to a second set point, but a forehand long was the result.
Williams managed to get out of jail with a hold for 4-5, polished with a seventh ace before her opponent clinched the set a game later.
“I was feeling it in my legs, but I for more energy,” Williams said. “I wasn[t tired, butr felt fatigue for some reason.
“I told myself I cannot do this if I want to keep winning.”
The Williams decline momentarily picked up pace in the second set as the 38-year-old dropped her serve in the first game as a forehand sailed over the baseline.
But the veteran fought back with a re-break for one apiece. Pironkova saved a break point to hold for 2-all.
The match stayed on serve but Pironkova lost serve as a drop shot flew just short into the net, 3-5 after a 24-shot rally as Williams managed a return with her left hand; the seed took the set in the next game with three straight aces as her total reached 16.
In the third, Williams got away to a 2-0 lead after breaking to start the deciding set. She did it again in the penultimate game to take an unbreakable grip on the contest.
Williams reached the semis on the first of three match points as she wrong-footed Pironkova on a return.
The winner faces a quick turnaround with a semi-final looming on Thursday at the ghost venue.
“The good news: I’m used to playing back to back to back,” Williams said. “I just need to figure out how to start a bit faster.
“I’m happy to be standing here a winner, I was pretty close to not being here. I kept fighting and never gave up.”
Later Vika Azarenka the third mum to appear in the 2020 US Open quarter finals swept aside Elise Mertens in straight sets to set up a tasty looking semi Final against another mum the No. 3 seed Serena Williams .
Twice a Grand slam finalist and former World No. 1 Azarenka was making her first quarter final appearance since Australia in 2016 before taking time out to become a mum to son Leo and fight a subsequent custody battle to keep him.
Leo has accompanied Azarenka to New York, along with her mother Alla who is doing all the cooking at their rented house
The Belarusian dominated the match from start to finish firing down 21 winners and breaking all six of the Mertens service games on her way to an overwhelming 6-1, 6-0 victory in just over an hour.
Mertens who had reached the quarter finals stage without dropping a set was way under par.
Azarenka was beaten by Williams in the 2012 and 2013 US Open finals.