Another comeback victory in the books, Serena Williams waved to two of the very rare spectators at this twilight zone of a United States Open: her husband Alexis Ohanian and their daughter, Olympia, who turned 3 this week.
“I hope she saw her mama fighting,” Williams said. “I don’t think she was paying attention. She may have been playing with some princesses upstairs.”
If so, Olympia missed the chance to watch Williams force her tricky third-round match with Sloane Stephens into a U-turn on the strength of her serve and her will, prevailing 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 on Saturday.
It was a symmetrical score line, but an uneven and ultimately anticlimactic duel between two Americans who have had breakthrough moments in Arthur Ashe Stadium when it was full of fans instead of being all but empty because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Williams, a six-time U.S. Open singles champion, and Stephens, who won the title in 2017, seldom managed to play well at the same time.
Stephens, 27, could do little wrong in the first set: making five unforced errors to Williams’s 13 as she absorbed her pace, dominated the extended rallies and exploited patterns that often left Williams far from the ball amid the eerie quiet.
It did not hurt, of course, that Williams was still trying to find her range on her fearsome first serve, missing them by the bunch as Stephens broke her twice early on.
But the serve remains the pacemaker for Williams’s game, and when it started working, she started clicking: ripping open-stance forehand winners, shoring up her shaky backhand and making fewer mistakes on the move.
With her 39th birthday looming next month, she is not as quick into and out of the corners as she was in her prime. She has struggled to close in 2020 with three-setters becoming a bad habit.
But she did not waver in finishing off the 26th-seeded Stephens on Saturday, winning 10 of the last 12 games and breaking Stephens’s serve with seeming ease to complete the victory.
That can only be reassuring as she moves forward in New York without the familiar roars from the stands but with a familiar feeling.
“I love a crowd, especially this crowd,” she said. “But I am so intense. This is how I am in practice, incredibly intense.”
There is a school of thought that Williams’s intensity is a double-edged sword: that it can make her tight under pressure and turn some routine afternoons into lengthy battles of will.
But it has clearly contributed to her winning 23 Grand Slam singles titles, one short of Margaret Court’s record, and kept her eager for more even as her peer group retires.
“It’s always sad to see another one go,” she said. “It’s, like, OK, it moves me even closer to the line, and I’m trying to avoid the line.”
Williams smiled as she said it, and it is hard to imagine her crossing that line unless her sibling, 40-year-old Venus Williams, crosses it too.
For now, there are still big serves to rip, inner demons to be calmed and younger opposition to be vanquished.
She once dubbed Stephens her heir apparent: playing her for the first time in 2013 in Brisbane, Australia and saying after winning that, “I think she can be the best in the world one day.”
That day looked all the more possible when Stephens defeated Williams a couple of weeks later in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. That upset, which ended a 20-match winning streak for Williams, also created tension.
Not long after the match, Williams cryptically tweeted “I made you.” Stephens was convinced that Williams was referring to her.
Later that year, in an interview with ESPN, Stephens said Williams had gone from friendly to remote since the upset.
“That should tell everyone something,” Stephens said with her mother trying to slow her down. “How she went from saying all those nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter. Like, seriously! People should know. They think she’s so friendly, and she’s so this and she’s so that. No, that’s not reality!”
Williams never responded publicly to those comments, and seven years later, their relationship is cordial and their rivalry not much of one.
Saturday’s match was their first in more than five years, and Williams now leads 6-1. Her punches have been superior through the years to Stephens’s counterpunches.
“Obviously she has one of the greatest serves in the game,” Stephens said.
Since winning the U.S. Open and reaching the French Open final the following year, Stephens has struggled to build on those achievements.
She has been in a funk throughout this abbreviated season: winning just one of her eight singles matches in 2020 before playing in the U.S. Open.
Williams lost early at the Australian Open in January and has been inconsistent and occasionally overwrought since the tour resumed last month. She lost to the 116th-ranked Shelby Rogers at the Top Seed Open and to the 21st-ranked Maria Sakkari last week in the Western & Southern Open in which she appeared to lose the desire to compete in the third set: rushing between points and wildly missing full-cut groundstrokes.
That tournament was also played at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. And on Monday, Williams will get a rematch in the same place with Sakkari, a quick and athletic player from Greece, in the fourth round of the U.S. Open.
“Especially when you lost it’s good to kind of go back out there and try to do a little bit better,” she said.
Time for Olympia to get another chance to watch her mother fight with No. 24 in sight.
Williams, one of three mothers still in contention here with Victoria Azarenka and Tsvetana Pironkova, was asked on Saturday about the pluses and minuses.
“One day your daughter can say she was there, whether she remembers or not, we can always have pictures,” Williams said of the pluses. “But other than that, it’s just minus, like, I’m not with her. I’m not around her. It’s hard. For me, it’s hard, because I spend a tremendous amount of time with her. On that note, I’m going to go be with her. Thank you.”
And off she went.