Tuesday, April 20, 2021

SOUL OF THE OPEN: Serena, Madison, Naomi Make Semis; Sloane Out

*Flushing, NY – The US Open is now down to the wire and things almost went according to script. The semifinals are set and, like last year, it was mostly “coffee” that rose to the top. Our melanin-free sisters (which is who they are to us in the grand scheme of humanity) fought the good fight and we love them, but we have some powerful “sistas” they just couldn’t overcome.

 It’s just like that sometimes.

The ladies who do remain as part of the last four of the women’s competition of the US Open are Serena Williams (36), Madison Keys (23), Naomi Osaka (20) and Sloa … no, Anastasija Sevastova (last year was Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, and Coco Vandeweghe). I predicted there would be four semifinalists of color left to slug it out, but as much as I wanted that to be the case, the defending champion, Sloane Stephens, just didn’t have it in her to make the cut. She was battling a cold and wilted in straight sets to Sevastova, the crafty Latvian. 

Sloane Stephens (Photo Credit: Margot Jordan)

“I have been playing well the last matches. Today just was a tough day. I didn’t play my best. I wish I could have played better, but it just wasn’t the day. I wasn’t defending anything. I would’ve had to play the same opponents as last year to defend, but I played different players. I could have sh*t the bed in before round one, but I didn’t. I did my best,” she said.

“I could have s–t the bed in the first round, and that would have been really bad. So the fact that I made it to the quarterfinals and played some really good matches and I just competed as hard as I could, I mean, a lot to be proud of.”

Welp, what else is there to say about that?

A clash between Sloane and Serena would’ve been super tantalizing, but it just wasn’t to be. And based on her post match comments, the fallen world no. 3 isn’t at all pressed, so I guess we must follow suit.  Besides, she’s only 25 and she’ll have many other opportunities to repeat Grand Slam glory in due time. 

Now, on to those who did make the cut.

Serena Williams

Serena Williams was facing Karolina Pliskova, who stopped her in her Grand Slam tracks just 2 years ago at the US Open. But this time around the Czech wrote a “Czech” her game couldn’t cash. During her prematch press conference, Pliskova communicated in so many words how sure she was that she’d win the match, which was no doubt based on how things went in their last meet up.  But … she was dead wrong.  Serena is a fierce competitor with a long memory and once she’s been beaten by a “colleague” she goes on a mission of relentless vengeance (just ask Maria Sharapova). 

Such was the case with Pliskova.  

I asked during a press conference prior to their match what she learned from her 2016 loss and planned to take into their then-upcoming quarterfinal bout and she was tight-lipped about specifics, but said this:

“She came out strong and came out very well. I have watched her a great deal since then. I have taken a lot from that match and think we are in different positions now. It will be an interesting match.” 

And interesting it was. 

Serena started the match very slowly. She’s experienced 23++ times over in Grand Slam play, but as she said in response to me asking her how she feels about the expectations of perfection from her, “she’s grateful to be in that position, but she’s not always perfect … she’s human.”

She did indeed look human for about three or four games, then …

The crowned “Queen of New York” just couldn’t find her game off the ground at first and gave the big-serving Czech an early lead of 4-1.  But in true Serena fashion, she came roaring back, leveled it, then steam rolled into the second set, 6-4. By then she had completely found her groove and began slamming down serves of up to 117 mph, giving up very few points to her discombobulated opponent. Aces and winners were flying from her side of the court, giving her a one set, 4-0 lead.  

But things became a little too easy and she lost her focus for a moment.

Her serve had been working well up to that point, but she lost her way with it in the fifth game of the second set. Pliskova broke her then came alive again and held for 2-4. The momentum had shifted a bit. Serena was then back on serve, serving for 5-2, but immediately fell behind 0-40. 

She was one more lost point from allowing Pliskova completely back in the set.

BUT, Serena had an ace … or two … or three in her hand and she fired them all down with fearless authority. The aces plus one unreturnable serve help her level the game 40-all, then close it out for 5-2. Pliskova then easily held her next service game for 3-5, but only for Serena to ace her off the court (three aces) and into the locker room. The six-time champion won the match 6-4, 6-3 and brought back her girlie twirl in celebration.

She’ll be facing – in her 12th US Open Semifinal – Sevastova, who ousted Sloane, on Friday at 7pm EST.

Naomi Osaka played what was supposed to be a quarterfinal showdown with Lesia Tsurenko the following day to determine who’d be next to join Serena and Sevastova in the semis. But her opponent’s body was there with her while her mind was apparently at home in bed. Naomi sweatlessly defeated her opponent 6-1, 6-1 in under an hour.

Naomi Osaka (Photo Credit: Margot Jordan)

Tsurenko revealed in her post match press conference that she had contracted a viral illness just before the match and rather than pull out at that stage of a Grand Slam tournament, she played for the sake of the fans. 

Naomi was aware that something wasn’t right, but she was content to remain focused on what she came to do, which was to win: 

“I don’t really look on the other side of the net too much,” she said. “I try to focus on what I’m doing and … I feel if I were to look at what she’s doing, then I would maybe let off a little bit or try to think that’ going to be easier.” 

She moves on to face Madison Keys, who didn’t have it quite as easy in her quarterfinal match up with Carla Suarez Navarro.  

Madison Keys (Photo Credit: Margot Jordan)

Carla came out ready to play and was holding her own in fending off Madison’s powerful serves and ground strokes.  She’s nowhere near as powerful as Madison, but she was able to absorb the pace and stay afloat … at least until the critical moments in each set. She was able to frustrate Madison with her efficient retrieval skills and earned one or two opportunities to break her serve, but Madison would quickly erase those opportunities with thumping shots and unreturnable serves during the biggest points of each set. The back and forth went on until the score line was 4-all, but demonstrating that tactics of a future Grand Slam champion, she knew to pounce and break the spaniard’s serve at that moment, go up 5-4, then serve it out 6-4, 6-3. The second set was more of the same, allowing her to earn her a second appearance in the semifinals of the US Open.

“She does a really good job, especially tonight, of holding the baseline and redirecting the ball. So I knew that I was going to have to play really well but also know that she’s going to come up with some great shots and defend really well.

So it was more just about staying calm and knowing that she was going to play well and just waiting for my opportunities.”

Her match against Naomi promises to be a battle royale, because it will be power for power and big serve for big serve. Many feel they have similar games and Naomi agrees … sort of:

“I sort of depends. Sometimes I go crazy and then I start hitting everything. And then other times I will try to be more consistent.  But I think she’s more of a power player than I am. We both have big serves and stuff, and forehands and backhands are pretty good,” she said.

The two played inside Arthur Ashe in 2016 and Naomi had her on the rope with match points, but her inexperience failed her. Madison saved match point, then went on to come roaring back to win the match. It was devastating then, but a good lesson to take into her subsequent matches with Keys and for her second chance to slug it out against her again at the US Open:

“I have played her a lot, so I already know how she plays, and I know that she’s a very powerful player. She’s really good. I know that if I play her, then it won’t be easy at all. Plus, she’s an American, so the crowd will probably be rooting for her,” said regarding her rematch. 

Madison added her thoughts on that meeting:

“Honestly, I think she’s probably forgotten about it. I think it will be a completely different match. And she’s grown a lot since then, as have I, so I think it’s going to be a tough match and I don’t think that’s going to be on her mind,” she said.

Madison holds a two-match undefeated record over Osaka, but they’re both in a place this fortnight where there is no foregone conclusion.

They will face off directly after Serena Williams’ match versus Anastajia Sevastova. 

So, Thursday night at the US Open will be … good, not only in terms of the matchups, but the optics of what black women have been able to achieve in the sport. Three being in the final four last year and the same occurring this year says it’s no fluke and the sky is indeed the limit if you believe and work hard.  So, grab your daughters, and maybe even your sons, and let them watch three melanin rich, powerful, black “sistas” compete on one of the biggest stages for sports in the world for a chance to win $3.7 million dollars.  

Be inspired.

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