Serena puts herself in position — and in the U.S. Open final again

© Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

NEW YORK — She did it impressively and quickly, with surprising grace as well as unsurprising power. Serena Williams moved around the court like she owned it (why not, it’s in her homeland?) and Thursday night moved into the finals of the U.S. Open championship. Again.

Williams may be closing in on her 38th birthday — it’s in three weeks — but after she overwhelmed Elina Svitolina, 6-3, 6-1, in their semifinal Serena is also one win away from tying the record for Grand Slam titles. Again.

Margaret Court holds the mark, 24, and Williams has been stuck on 23, losing in the finals of Wimbledon and the Open last year — who can forget the controversy here in 2018? — and at Wimbledon this year.

But in a tidy 1 hour 10 minutes (even though it took 14 minutes to play the first two games of the match, both won by Williams), Serena once more put herself in position to share the record.

Mainly because, healthy and more fit since giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia two years ago, Serena was able to put herself in position on the Ashe Stadium court, tracking down shots and responding with big ones of her own.

“I just wanted not to get off to a slow start,” said Williams, knowing Svitolina had not lost a set in this tournament until facing Williams. “She’s such a good player.”

But Williams is a better player, one who has now equaled Chris Evert’s total of 101 wins at the Open. “It’s impressive to be in any club with Chris,” said Serena, knowing Evert was above her in the ESPN announcing booth.

Serena, perhaps because of her age and the 20 years she’s spent racing up and back on courts around the world, came to the net more than usual, and that tactic seemed to mystify the 24-year-old Svitolina.

“Serve and volley,” said Williams. “What am I doing at the net?”

Winning a match, that’s what.

“Let me get back to the baseline. That’s where I’m grounded.”

And from where she’s won the Open six times previously.

Svitolina, who’s from the Ukraine, defeated Williams in the last match they played, in 2016 at the Rio Olympics (Serena leads in their series, 5-1). She said after this match she didn’t think Williams played her best.

Serena didn’t disagree. Of course, to paraphrase a line from golf, it ain’t how, it’s how many games and sets you win. Or, as Brad Gilbert titled his book, “Winning Ugly.”

“I think today was solid,” said Williams of the semi. “No, it wasn’t my best. It’s interesting she noticed. I probably could have played better. She could have played better as well.”

What was Svitolina expecting, Williams to crush her as she did Wang Qiang in the Tuesday quarterfinals, 6-1, 6-0?

Serena, because she’s American, because of her success, is wildly popular at the Open. New York loves winners, loves personalities. Now that she’s a mother, Serena is even more popular. All the boxes are filled.

Will she fill that box marked No. 24, is the question. In the Wimbledon final two months ago, Williams was beaten big by Simona Halep, a stunner. But she explained that, because of injuries, she hadn’t had time to train properly.

“I felt more prepared this time,” Williams said. “At Wimbledon I had a week to prepare. I didn’t play the French. The joke was I was more trained for (the pre-Open events in) Canada than any time.”

She withdrew there because of an injury. “Just bad luck,” she said.

Williams didn’t need luck against Svitolina, who was the No. 5 seed in the Open, compared to No. 8 for Serena. She just needed the skills that analysts such as John McEnroe contend make Williams the best female player ever, no matter if she gets that 24th Slam or not.

Serena has been able to produce on demand, as she produced against Svitolina, holding serve, breaking serve and then holding again for a 3-0 lead. The match wasn’t over then, but it almost was.

“I think she knows what she has to do,” said Svitolina. “She has unbelievable strength ... that’s what makes her a legendary tennis player.”