On Aug. 31, 1998, a 16-year-old Serena Williams improved her U.S. Open match record to 1-0, came into the interview room, mentioned having finished final exams in physics and Algebra II and said: “On the physics I got 82. I was very proud of that. I have no comment on the Algebra II.”
Twenty-one long and booming years later, that same person, a mother of one at 37, improved her U.S. Open match record to 100-12 with a romp past a perfectly capable opponent in Qiang Wang, blasted to within two wins of her record-tying 24th Grand Slam title and left a first-time opponent with a familiar first-time-against-Williams expression.
Williams’s career has proved so long and storied that on the occasion of her 100th singles win at the U.S. Open, which whooshed by in a 6-1, 6-0 blast Tuesday night, she could not recollect even one iota about her first.
“Gosh, the first,” she said. “I don’t know what the first one was. What was the first?”
Told soon thereafter it had been a 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 win over Australian Nicole Pratt, Williams said: “What? Wow, I do not remember that at all.”
“No?” went a question.
“No, not ring a bell at all.”
Told that it had been three sets, she said, “It was three sets here?”
“Nothing?” went an ensuing question.
“Nothing,” went the answer.
Slight pause: “You know, Venus will remember, though. She remembers everything.”
After Williams’s 100th singles win, Wang said, “power.” She seemed to gaze into some sort of eternity as she said it. Asked whether that meant Williams’s power off the baseline or off the serve, Wang said, “Everything.”
The stat sheet of Williams’s 6-1, 6-0 quarterfinal win looked like a case of power vs. power outage. It actually looked grim. Winners: 25-0. (Gasp.) Points: 50-15. (Mercy.) Points allowed in Williams’s seven service games: 7. (Help.) Points in rallies of four shots or fewer: 36-10. (Sigh.) Unforced errors: 10 by Williams, which meant she allowed Wang to create only five points.
“The power, I cannot handle it. Just too much for me,” Wang said, self-assessing that she needed to “build my muscle.”
She sprinkled her remarks with slight laughs.
It was quite some confession for the top-ranked player in China and the No. 18 player in the world, one who spent the fourth round smashing No. 2 seed Ashleigh Barty, 6-2, 6-4, even if this did mark Wang’s first Grand Slam quarterfinal and first appearance in Arthur Ashe Stadium, set against Williams’s 52nd Grand Slam quarterfinal and the fact she could treat Ashe almost as an address.
She’ll play its noisy theater again Thursday for her 38th Grand Slam semifinal, with only five other women left in the tournament. One is Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, No. 5 in the world to Williams’s No. 8, and Williams’s opponent for the semifinals. Head-to-head, those two started out with Williams winning four times, including at the 2015 Australian Open (4-6, 6-2, 6-0) and the 2016 French Open (6-1, 6-1), but then Svitolina beat Williams at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics (6-4, 6-3).
“Well, I think I have to run a lot, like all other matches,” Svitolina said. “That’s normal. And try to react. I played some big hitters in this tournament, a lot, and I have to just react quickly with my feet and with my shots, as well.”
It will mark Svitolina’s second Grand Slam semifinal, following her breakthrough at Wimbledon, and it will bring another occasion centering on Williams, as on Tuesday night, when a new opponent lost herself in all the noise and lights and power.
“No, I don’t try to up any intimidation factor,” the six-time U.S. Open champion said. “I am who I am. I’ve always been the person that goes out there and roars and screams and complains and cries and fights. I’m extremely passionate about what I do. Most people that love their jobs are passionate about what they do. That’s just me.”
She said that 21 years after getting win No. 1 against Pratt and saying: “I kept saying to myself, ‘Serena, you can’t be a first-round casualty.’ It just would have been horrible.” And: “I like playing in big stadiums.” And: “Like I always saw on TV, the crowd goes wild, so it was pretty exciting to have it happen to me for the first time,” she said before adding three words that made for one wildly accurate prediction: “first of many.”