US Open 2018

US Open 2018: Serena Williams will face Karolina Pliskova after a battling Kanepi victory

Serena Williams will take on Karolina Pliskova in the quarter-finals of the US Open

Serena Williams
Serena Williams Photo: Marianne Bevis

It is Round 4 at the 50th playing of the US Open, leaving 16 women with a chance to win the last Major of the year. Yet already there have been thrills and spills.

For the first time in the half-century of US Open history, the top two seeds, in the shape of Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki, failed to make the third round.

Then the third of the trio of 2018 Major champions followed before the fourth round, Angelique Kerber. Fellow former Major champions and top-12 seeds Petra Kvitova, Jelena Ostapenko, Garbine Muguruza, and Venus Williams also failed to make the mid-way point, as did another pair of Major titlists, lower-ranked but also dangerous, Victoria Azarenka and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

And despite all this, and despite there being only one of the top six ranked women, three of the top dozen, left in the draw, there was a very familiar look to proceedings.

Six-time US Open and 23-time Major champion Serena Williams? Of course, even though her 37th birthday loomed later this month, even though this time last year she was about to give birth and then face serious post-partum health concerns, and even though she arrived in New York having played only 17 matches in more than 18 months.

Maria Sharapova, five-times a Major champion, including the US Open in 2006, and at the age of 31 now making her 54th Major appearance, advanced in cruise control, yet to drop a set, conceding only five games to the 2017 French Open champion, Ostapenko.

Another woman who has enjoyed the No1 ranking, albeit briefly and far more recently, No8 seed Karolina Pliskova, a finalist in New York in 2016, had also failed to lose a set thus far.

Dominika Cibulkova, a finalist at the Australian Open, champion at the WTA Finals and a former No4, showed all her energy and intensity to beat Wimbledon champion Kerber in her third consecutive three-setter. There is, when she is fit, no stopping the pocket rocket from Slovakia.

And next up for her was last year’s runner-up, Madison Keys, seeded 14, and one of three American women with a very real chance of victory in New York. For Keys’s friend and her conqueror last year, No3 seed Sloane Stephens, was also in the mix.

Stephens would follow Williams, on a packed Labor Day Saturday at Flushing Meadows, in attempting to reach the quarter-finals. She took on No15 seed Elise Mertens, one of the form players of the summer, in a rematch of their first just a fortnight ago in Cincinnati. The Belgian won that, 7-6(8), 6-2, and went on to reach the quarters, just as she had the week before in Montreal. She began the year with her first semi run at the Australian Open, and won two clay titles in Lugano and Rabat.

Stephens, though, had brought her US form to the 2018 season, too: the final at the French Open and Montreal, and the title in Miami. It promised to be a compelling contest.

Williams—well, it is hard to know where to begin with her achievements. Perhaps start with her reaching the final at Wimbledon this year before her daughter was 10 months old. Or perhaps begin at the start of her battle back to fitness and up the ranks, at Indian Wells in March, and drawn against her seeded sister Venus in the third round.

In New York, now ranked among the seeds, Serena would still draw her sister unseasonably early—in the third round. This time, she allowed Venus just three games, and had conceded only four games to each of her first two opponents.

Now it was fellow 30-something Kaia Kanepi, in the oldest last-16 match in the women’s draw, who Williams had beaten in all four previous matches. Yet the world No44 had notched up two quarter-finals runs in New York, and was responsible for beating Halep in the first round.

Before Williams and Kanepi even came to court, however, their next opponent had been determined on Louis Armstrong.

There, at a prompt 11am, Ashleigh Barty, just 22 years of age, was one of three remaining players making their singles debut in the second week of a Slam, and she took on the experience and power of Pliskova in an attempt to make it to her first quarter-final. Not that this precocious talent was without experience on the biggest stages.

She and partner Casey Dellacqua reached several finals in Major doubles draws by the time she was 17, only to take two years out to play professional cricket. Since returning at almost 20, she had suffered an arm injury, but last year won her first singles title to rise to No17 in the world. And still she continued to excel in doubles.

She had also beaten Pliskova twice in their three meetings, all tight affairs, particularly their last in Wuhan, 7-6 in the final set. But the tall Czech is nowhere more at home than at the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre—last year a quarter-finalist, before that the runner-up. And her intent was clear from the first game.

She pressed and pressed Barty to finally break in the first game, and she defended 0-40 in the eighth game to move to 5-3. Playing clean and efficient tennis, she served out the set, 6-4. She again came under pressure in the second game of the next set, but held, and got the key break in the third game, a lead she never gave up, 6-4, though the hour and a half on the clock confirmed this had been a tougher match than the score suggested.

It would be many hours yet before Pliskova knew the name of her quarter-final opponent, although judging from the first 20 minutes of the Williams/Kanepi contest, it would be much sooner.

The mighty six-time champion broke three times to take the opening set, 6-0, having made a blistering 16 winners for only four errors. Even the big power game of Kanepi had been unable to notch up more than two winners. But that was about to change.

The Estonian gathered herself to change the dynamic, now hitting 13 winners and scant errors. She got an immediate break, and broke again for 5-2 with her aggressive tactics, but Williams dug in to get one break back, hung tough to hold for 4-5, and had two break chances in 10th game, but Kanepi converted her third set point, deservedly so for the quality and resilience of her tennis through the last 40 minutes, 6-4. For the first time, it would take a third set to determine the winner between these two.

Again, it would be a tussle in the early stages, and Williams cranked up her intensity. She made a tough hold to open, broke, and made another tough hold for 3-0, letting out an almighty roar of “C’mon”.

Now Kanepi kept pace with Williams, as both threw in love holds, but the biggest of them was in the ninth and concluding game, to the American, 6-3, to take Williams to her 15th US Open quarter-final.

Kanepi had little to be ashamed off—more winners than errors—but Williams stacked up 47 winners, and only 22 errors.

It is 20 years since the teenage Williams won her first title in New York, and she has fallen short of the quarters only twice in the interim. More remarkable still, she has not fallen short of the semis since winning on Arthur Ashe 10 years ago.

This time, she is making an increasingly strong case for being champion again, though Pliskova will have something to say about that, and of course Stephens, Sharapova, and a clutch of young talents in the bottom quarter of the draw: 20-year-olds Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka, and teenager Marketa Vondrousova—born after Williams’ first title here.

However, Williams’ daughter turned one yesterday. Perhaps there could be no bigger incentive for Williams than to be able to dedicate this one to Olympia.

Shortly afterwards, Anastasija Sevastova hit 30 winners past No7 seed Elina Svitolina, 6-3, 1-6, 6-0, to set a meeting with either Stephens or Mertens.

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