Serena Williams already was struggling to keep up in a fast-paced US Open semi-final when she stopped behind the baseline after a third-set point and leaned over.
She held that pose for a bit, then clutched at her left ankle and asked for a trainer.
While Williams took a medical timeout for a tape job, her latest bid for a 24th grand slam singles title seemingly slipping away, her opponent, Victoria Azarenka, sat in a sideline seat, eyes closed, calm and composed as can be.
After a delay, action resumed, and while Williams raised the force of her shots and volume of her shouts, it was Azarenka who finished off a 1-6 6-3 6-3 victory to return to a major championship final for the first time since 2013.
“It’s been seven years? That’s my favourite number,” Azarenka, who won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013 and lost to Williams in the US Open finals each of those two years, said.
“I guess that’s meant to be. I’m very grateful for this opportunity.
“On the road to the final, you have to beat the best players and today was that day.”
Azarenka was brilliant as she claimed her first win against Williams in 11 career slam match-ups between the pair.
The loss left Williams just short of No.24 yet again.
With her 39th birthday a little more than two weeks away, the question will become: How many more chances will Williams get?
She did confirm afterward she’ll head to Paris – the French Open starts on September 27.
“Obviously, disappointed, but at the same time, I did what I could today,” Williams said. “Other times, I’ve been close and I could have done better. Today, I gave a lot.”
Williams said the leg issue wasn’t why she lost.
“I don’t think that had anything to do with it,” Williams said. “Ultimately, it didn’t affect my play at all.”
On Saturday, Azarenka will face Naomi Osaka for the championship in a meeting between two-time major champions who have both been ranked No.1 in the past and have been by far the two best players since tennis resumed last month after a pandemic-forced hiatus.
Azarenka has won 11 matches in a row; Osaka’s streak is at 10 after her 7-6 (7-1) 3-6 6-3 win over Jennifer Brady in a hard-hitting clash filled with fast serves and strong forehands.
Osaka beat Williams for the 2018 title at Flushing Meadows.
“It means a lot for me. I kind of consider New York my second home,” Osaka, who was born in Japan and moved to the United States as a child, said.
“I kind of love the atmosphere, even though there’s no people here. I feel like this court kind of suits me well.”
Suited both players just fine as they pounded the ball relentlessly.
They combined for 70 winners – 35 apiece – to just 42 unforced errors, while it took a bit of luck to swing things Osaka’s way.
That’s when, at 2-1 in the third set, Osaka earned her first break point with a backhand that clipped the net tape and trickled over.
She was able to convert the chance when Brady’s backhand in response was called long – although a television replay showed it actually caught a piece of the back of the baseline.
Brady did not challenge the ruling.