Serena Williams vs Victoria Azarenka: Friends and moms set for US Open battle

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“We can’t ignore the fact that they are both young mothers and grand slam champions,” Groeneveld, one of tennis’ most respected coaches, told CNN Sport.

“Great respect for these two women that are at the pinnacle of our sport and are leading the way and set examples, because I do feel the new generation need these examples of strong women.”

After three mothers landed in the quarterfinals at a grand slam for the first time in the Open Era — Tsvetana Pironkova was the other and gave Williams all she could handle Wednesday — two moms are meeting in a grand slam semifinal for the first time.

Both are attempting to land their maiden grand slam titles as mothers and end longer than anticipated droughts.

Williams last triumphed at the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant with daughter Olympia, and this is the ninth grand slam where the 38-year-old is attempting to tie Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 majors.

When Azarenka won the 2013 Australian Open, no one would have predicted that come 2020 the Belarussian would be limited to two majors. Such is her ability.

The 31-year-old is a former world No. 1 who has tested Williams like few others have done before, even leading the 2012 US Open final 5-3 in the third set prior to witnessing her friend pull off yet another grand slam comeback. However, Williams is 11-0 versus Azarenka in grand slams and Olympics and holds an 18-4 record overall.

Azarenka has had to endure a custody battle revolving around her son, Leo, and has thought in the past about retiring.

Before winning the warmup Western & Southern Open last month, Azarenka hadn’t won a single match since August 2019.

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Yet both Williams and Azarenka have said at this US Open that they’re being less hard on themselves than before.

“COVID has been a terrible thing, but for me it got me to pause and really overview a lot of things for myself,” Azarenka told reporters.

“And I knew if I had to do this last comeback, I have to do things differently. I can’t keep trying going into that same circle every time, ‘Oh, you were like this in 2012, 2013.’ No, I don’t even remember how it was.”

Said Williams: “I just think with the pressure and everything that I felt, like I just needed to be perfect. I always feel like I’m not perfect unless I’m perfect. That’s not a fun way to live your career and live your life.

“So it doesn’t matter if I lose 20 points in a row now. I just feel like, it’s okay, it’s fine, I’m here, and I’m happy. I get to play tennis after all these years.”

Comeback wins

And Williams is still competing the best she ever has.

The American has rallied in her three previous rounds against Sloane Stephens, Maria Sakkari — who upset her at the Western & Southern Open — and then Pironkova.

It’s reminiscent of the 2015 French Open, when Williams battled to five three-set victories to lift the title while dealing with an illness.

“I do think that when she gets through these types of challenges, it just makes her stronger,” added Groeneveld, now working with men’s pro Taro Daniel after guiding the likes of Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova and Stephens.

“Just how many punches can she take? She has been taking punch after punch after punch but seems to come out of the court stronger than she actually went into it. That must give her confidence and obviously that serve does give her a lot of free points but it gives her the extra edge she is looking for.”

Ah yes, that famous Williams serve.

Williams hit 20 aces against Pironkova, her highest tally in eight years. But in Azarenka, she is facing one of tennis’ top returners.

“She really stepped up to the plate with the serve,” said Groeneveld. “If that goes away, because of the pressure Vika can apply on the serves with her better returns than Pironkova, we might be in for a surprise.”

Groeneveld doesn’t believe that having to play on back-to-back days for the first time in the tournament after a three-setter against Pironkova will be a factor for Williams.

“She’s got some matches in her,” said Groeneveld. “I think that’s going to help her actually.

“She’s built up in that she’s been through losing a first set, getting back into it, knowing that her game is there in the later stages and that she actually comes out of it stronger. I think that’s built up some confidence which she can definitely take on board in this match.”

Which rematch?

Groeneveld is picking 2018 winner Naomi Osaka to get the better of surging maiden grand slam semifinalist Jennifer Brady in the other last four pairing.

So does the Dutchman think Saturday’s finale will be a rematch of the controversial final that saw Osaka beat Williams or a rematch of the Western & Southern Open final that never was? Osaka withdrew ahead of her tussle with Azarenka due to a hamstring injury.

“I hope Serena can take that 24,” said Groeneveld. “We all are sitting here and waiting for her to take that number 24. And I honestly hope that it will be a Serena-Osaka final.”

But he added: “My head tells me that Vika is going to win Thursday.”

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