Serena Williams had already lost once this summer to Maria Sakkari.
She wasn’t about to let it happen twice. But she had to dig deep into her physical and mental reserves to earn the victory.
No. 3 seed Serena dispatched No. 15 Sakkari, 6-3, 6-7(6), 6-3, in the fourth round of the U.S. Open on Monday to move into the quarterfinals. Sakkari beat Williams last month at the Western & Southern Open in New York in a match where Serena cramped up and barely moved for the ball in the third set.
After that loss, Serena compared her level of play to a bad relationship, saying it’s like “dating a guy that you know sucks.”
But in their latest encounter, Serena overcame an 0-2 deficit in the final set, stepping up her serves and service returns when she needed them most. She closed the match out on her serve with a backhand crosscourt winner after a long rally.
“Of course I thought about [the last match] but ever so little because it’s a completely different match,” Williams told Rennae Stubbs in her on-court interview.
“It was a completely different scenario and a completely different moment. So I just kept fighting. She was doing so well, she was being so aggressive and I knew that I needed to do the same thing.”
With the revenge win, the 38-year-old Williams improved to 7-2 in the tennis restart. It was her 105th career win at the U.S. Open, and her 100th in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Only Martina Navratilova has more at a single Slam: she won 120 matches at Wimbledon. Martina has said Serena’s GOAT status is up for debate.
Serena is now three wins from capturing that elusive 24th Grand Slam singles title, which would tie Margaret Court’s all-time record. Serena is 0-4 in her last four major finals, including back-to-back losses in the U.S. Open.
“This is the best I’ve seen her play since she’s come back from the COVID layoff,” 18-time Grand Slam champion Chrissie Evert said on ESPN during the match.
Serena became the third American woman into the quarterfinals after Jen Brady and Shelby Rogers both won Sunday. No. 2 Sofia Kenin will attempt to become the fourth American into the quarters when she plays Elise Mertens Monday night.
Rogers next faces No. 4 Naomi Osaka, who is the first favorite to capture the title with Serena the second favorite, per bookmaker.eu
“I look at Naomi Osaka as [Serena’s] biggest competitor in this draw,” Evert said.
In the decisive third set, Serena was broken in the first game when she sailed a backhand long on break point. She broke back for 2-2 by ripping a crosscourt forehand winner as Sakkari approached the net.
Serena then broke Sakkari again for a 5-3 lead thanks to a series of monster service returns. On break point, Sakkari hit a week second-shot forehand into the net.
“I’m definitely match fit, I’ve gone a lot of three sets, so that’s also good because I know that not only am I match-fit, I’m fit-fit so it works both ways,” Serena said.
After dropping the first set in her last match against Sloane Stephens, Serena came out much more focused against Sakkari. She fought off a 0-40 situation on her serve to hold at 3-2 and then ripped a nasty crosscourt forehand winner to earn the break for 4-2. She closed out the set with a second-serve ace.
In the second-set tiebreak, Serena fell behind 0-4 before closing to 3-4.
With Sakkari serving for the set at 6-5, Serena smacked a two-handed backhand return winner down the line for 6-all. With Sakkari up 7-6, Serena sailed a forehand long, giving Sakkari the set.
Williams was also one of three mothers who advanced to the fourth round, along with Victoria Azarenka of Belarus and Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria.
Serena will next face Pironkova as the March of the Moms continues. Pironkova, who has a 2-and-a-half-year-old son named Alexander, prevailed over Alize Cornet in three sets.
Asked about her 3-year-old daughter Olympia watching the matches in Ashe, Serena said, “She’s a fan of tennis. She’s come to watch me practice, at least on this court. She loves when I practice on this court because she can sit and watch.”
This post has been updated.