NEW YORK — It’s never been a particular career goal of Serena Williams to be alongside Molla Bjorsted Mallory in the U.S. Open record book, but after 20 years and 106 victories she is on the cusp of doing just that.
Mallory was a Norwegian tennis legend who played in a long white skirt and hammered a shot people called a forehand drive that was the most lethal weapon of her era. She won the last of her eight Open singles titles in 1926, at age 42. If Williams — soon to be 39 — can keep her current form and manage her nerves and win two more matches in Flushing Meadows, she will be right behind Mallory as the second oldest singles champion, male or female, in the 140-year history of the U.S. championships.
One day after dispatching Tsvetana Pironkova, mother of Alexander, in the quarters, Williams will be across the net from the resurgent Victoria Azarenka, mother of Leo.
The winner of Mother vs. Mother will face the winner of Thursday night’s first semifinal between No. 9 Naomi Osaka and No. 41 Jennifer Brady in Saturday’s championship match.
“I love playing against Serena,” Azarenka said. “We always played on big stages. It was a lot of big fights. She's one of the players who push me to the limit, who makes me better. I'm excited for that. It's been a while since we played. I think the last time was, what is it, Indian Wells. I think we both were not really playing well at that time. I think the semifinal of a Grand Slam is a different stage. It's going to be a different fight. I'm looking forward to it.”
A 31-year-old Floridian by way of Belarus, Azarenka advanced with a 6-1, 6-0 dismembering of No. 18 Elise Mertens of Belgium, her 10th consecutive victory in the Queens-style bubble. She won the Open tuneup tournament, the Western & Southern Open, late last month, and has now won five matches here, moving as well as she ever has, playing with clinical efficiency, and wrecking people with her return game.
Williams is in her own orbit when it comes to service; her 64 aces are more than double the nearest competitor. Azarenka can’t come close to matching that, but has put 84 percent of her returns in play, and broken serve more times (28 out of 44, 64 percent) than any other player here. It’s an excellent skill to have against Williams, who blasted 20 aces in her quarterfinal against Pironkova.
Azarenka, a former No. 1, won her two Grand Slam titles in Australia in 2012 and 2013, which only seems like eons ago. She was twice the runner-up at the Open to Williams, who has beaten her in 18 of their 22 meetings. This is Azarenka’s first major semifinal since the 2013 Open, after which her form fell off, injuries dropping her out of the top 30 by the end of 2014. She worked her way back, then gave birth to Leo in December 2016 and wound up in a bitter custody battle with his father. Her days among the elite seemed behind her, but Azarenka fought her way back into the top 50 early last year, and has been on a steady climb since.
Now she gets to face her sport’s most dominant champion, a 23-time major winner who is desperately seeking No. 24, which would tie her with Margaret Court on the all-time career singles list. Azarenka is playing with almost palpable joy, a state of mind that did not come easily.
“It took me a long road to come here with a lot of struggles, a lot of understanding, forcing me to find this route, this path, if you can say that,” Azarenka said. “But I'm here and I'm happy.”
She talked about a theme Williams has echoed often at this tournament – how motherhood has enriched her perspective, provided not just the treasure of a young life, but the ability to see life beyond the rectangle that demarcates her work place. The mothers both sound very ready. Molla Mallory may have some company soon.
"I’ve just got to be a little bit better, really, and just expect people to go lights out and just be ready for lights out,” Williams said.
Follow Wayne Coffey on Twitter @wr_coffey
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka finally meet again, in US Open