Serena Williams defies predictions to knock Sloane Stephens out of US Open

Six-times champion into fourth round in New York
Williams now faces No 15 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece

Serena Williams, hanging on to her reputation like a mountaineer on an icy escarpment, outlasted the 2017 champion, Sloane Stephens, on the sixth day of the 2020 US Open to edge closer to yet more tennis history. But her 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 win in an hour and 45 minutes on Arthur Ashe went from fraught to the point of genuine concern and back to blinding dominance as she moved into the fourth round.

Her task gets no easier there, where the lively Greek star Maria Sakkari, who beat her in the Cincinnati Open last week, is waiting for the 23-slam queen of tennis. Earlier on Saturday, Sakkari made short work of another American, the hyped Amanda Anisimova.

Winner of six titles in 10 finals and 19 visits, Williams had not left the tournament in the third round since her teenaged debut in 1998, when she lost to the Romanian Irina Spirlea. But she flirted for too long with fate on Saturday.

With most of the big names left in the draw watching from players’ suites above, Williams said courtside: “It was intense, I have to say. We always have some incredible matches. It brings out the best in my fitness when I play Sloane. In that first set, I don’t thing she made any errors. I was saying: ‘I don’t want to lose in straight sets. Get a game, get a game.’ I love a crowd but I’m so intense, this is how I am in practice.”

Tim Henman predicted on Amazon Prime that Stephens would squash Williams in straight sets, which is laying it on the line about a champion hunting down Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 slams. Greg Rusedski predicted doom, as well. Martina Navratilova, a four-times US champion, saw it differently: “It’s still Serena Williams against the field, but time is not her friend.” Congratulations, gentlemen. There’s always tomorrow.

However, for long periods, the net and the whitewash were not her friends, either. Broken early, she was rooted to the baseline, statuesque in all the wrong ways. Breathing heavily and over-reliant on her feared serve to get out of trouble, she struggled to overpower Stephens, who broke again and cruised to a one-set lead.

The urgency rose appreciably in the second frame. Williams loosened up a little in her ground strokes and stayed in front on serve. Although Stephens was still picking her off wide and deep, she got a couple of looks on the Stephens serve in the sixth game, and was relieved to see her tiring opponent hit wide.

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Williams held to love and broke to 15 to level at a set apiece after an hour and 10 minutes, and the anxiety faded. She broke for 3-1 in the third then cruised to victory without incident, much as she has done for most of her career.

Sakkari, who shocked Williams in the Cincinnati Open on the same site, said of the pending rematch after embarrassing Anisimova, the 22nd seed, in 55 minutes: “It’s going to be tough, but playing Serena last week gives me a bit of an idea how she plays. You have to come up with some great tennis. Otherwise there is no chance against her. You never know what you’re going to get with Serena.”

She added: “I’m happy with the way I played today. I didn’t make many unforced errors, didn’t let her hit winners or give her time. My serve was good.”

As others struggle with the anti-virus bubble on site and in the team hotels, as well as the absence of spectators, Sakkari, who has yet to be infected by the cynicism of the tour, said: “I’m very thankful to be here, even without the fans. I don’t agree with people who say it doesn’t feel right. We’re all here fighting for the title. We’re not here for no reason.”

This was the highest number of Americans, 11, to reach the third round of the women’s draw since 1992. Elsewhere, it wasn’t a great day for homegrown male hopes.

If anyone was unaware that the 21-year-old wildcard JJ Wolf admired Andre Agassi, the bleach and the mullet might have given it away. However, that’s pretty much where the comparison ended as the one-time college star from Ohio went down in flames against last year’s finalist, Daniil Medvedev.

The Russian, who won 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 in an hour and 49 minutes, said: “It was a good match to win in three sets. It’s not easy to recover from five and four set matches. I’m sure [JJ] is going to be climbing up the rankings.”

Wolf, who has a big serve and a barber with a sense of humour, hit the headlines earlier in the week when he had to deny that an Instagram photo of him mimicking the alt-right white power “OK” signal did not represent his views on race. He was also pictured in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt.