Serena heads to final, will face Osaka

NEW YORK (AP) — Serena Williams was a bit shaky at the start of her U.S. Open semifinal.

For all of six minutes.

That’s how long it took her to drop the opening two games Thursday night. Williams spent the next hour playing flawlessly, particularly up at the net, grabbing 12 of 13 games to beat No. 19 seed Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia 6-3, 6-0 and reach her ninth final at Flushing Meadows and 31st at all Grand Slam tournaments.

“I’ve been working hard on my volleys. I have won a few doubles championships, so I know how to volley,” Williams said with a laugh, before adding this punch line: “I just usually come in only to shake hands.”

With one more victory, Williams will earn her seventh U.S. Open championship and her 24th major singles trophy, equaling Margaret Court for the most in tennis history. Williams already owns the mark for the most in the half-century professional era; Court won some of hers against amateur competition.

On Saturday, Williams will face No. 20 seed Naomi Osaka, a 20-year-old who is the first Japanese woman to reach a Grand Slam final.

Osaka saved all 13 break points she faced Thursday and defeated 2017 runner-up Madison Keys 6-2, 6-4.

Asked during her on-court interview how she managed to stave off all of those break chances, Osaka replied with a laugh, “This is going to sound really bad, but I was just thinking, ‘I really want to play Serena.'”

Why?

“Because she’s Serena,” Osaka said. “Like, what do you mean?”

Sevastova was participating in a major semi for the first time at age 28. While she began the evening well enough in Arthur Ashe Stadium by turning in two error-free games for a quick 2-0 lead, that all soon changed.

The roof was closed hours earlier because of a forecast calling for rain and strong wind, and so the screams and applause reverberated through the place whenever spectators roared for Williams, during the pre-match introductions, when she stepped to the baseline to serve in the opening game, and then after nearly every point she won.

And there were plenty of those.

Total winners? Williams led 31-10 in that category. And Sevastova’s penchant for drop shots did not pay off: She lost three points in the first set alone with miscues that landed on the wrong side of the net.

“She got a little bit lucky, I think, on some breaks in the first set. Then she started feeling better. When she’s in front, it’s tough to play,” said Sevastova, who retired from tennis in 2013, then returned to the tour in 2015. “She stayed focused in the second set.”

Men

NEW YORK (AP) — When Rafael Nadal finally finished a nearly five-hour climb into the U.S. Open semifinals, he thought backward as much as ahead.

His victory over Dominic Thiem reminded him of Wimbledon, where he outlasted Juan Martin del Potro in five sets in the quarterfinals before Novak Djokovic edged him in a 10-8 fifth set in the next round.

“When you win or when you lose like this,” Nadal said, “you come back home with the feeling that you did all the things that you can do.”

Now, Nadal might have to face those same two players again to defend his title in Flushing Meadows.

The top-ranked Spaniard plays third-seeded del Potro, and No. 6 seed Djokovic meets No. 21 Kei Nishikori in Friday’s other semifinal.

All four players have reached the U.S. Open final — only Nishikori hasn’t won it — to make this the first Grand Slam final four since the 2012 Australian Open in which all four players were past finalists.

Djokovic, bidding for his second straight major title, would seem to have the easier road to the final. He is 14-2 against Nishikori, including a victory in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. He has won the last 13 meetings, such a run of dominance that the Japan native didn’t recall that he beat Djokovic in Flushing Meadows in the 2014 semifinals, adding that maybe he should rewatch the match.

“Yeah, for sure it’s going to give me good confidence,” Nishikori said, “even though I (don’t) remember.”

Nadal would figure to have a tougher time in his fourth meeting with del Potro in the last five Grand Slam tournaments. The two that preceded the Wimbledon classic were easier victories, a semifinal rout en route to the French Open title and a four-set victory in last year’s U.S. Open semifinals, when Nadal dominated the last three sets.

Nadal leads the series 11-5, though del Potro routed him in straight sets in the 2009 semifinals.

Both Nadal and Djokovic are in position for a two-slam season and a chance to inch closer to Federer’s men’s record of 20 Grand Slam titles.

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