Serena Williams hits top gear to end Maria Sakkari’s challenge at US Open | Sport

Serena Williams appears to be building something in New York. At the US Open on Monday afternoon she played her best match of the year so far, beating Maria Sakkari 6-3, 6-7 (6), 6-3 in two and a half hours to reach her 53rd career grand slam quarter-final.

Just 12 days earlier the pair met in one of the worst matches of Williams’s career. After Williams led 7-5, 5-3 and served for the win, Sakkari recovered to grind out the second set on a tight tie-break at the Western & Southern Open having been two points from defeat. In the third set, Williams began to cramp and, as all looked lost, she seemed to lose interest. Sakkari won 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-1.

“Of course I thought about it, but ever so little because it’s a completely different match,” Williams said. “It was a completely different scenario and completely different moment. I just kept fighting and she was doing so well, being so aggressive. I knew that I needed to do the same thing.”

Few players have improved as much as Sakkari in recent years. Alongside young British coach Thomas Hill, she has journeyed from outside of the top 50 to No 22 in the world. Although she stands at only 5ft 8in, strong and fast, she is one of the best athletes in the sport.

She arrived on Arthur Ashe Stadium emboldened by her recent success against Williams. It was the Greek who controlled the points early on, setting the tone in her opening service game by throwing down three aces. Williams responded quickly, saving all three break points to hold serve and then rolling with the momentum as she took the first set. But where other players would have felt the match slipping away, Sakkari did not panic.

Throughout the second set, Sakkari stood firmly on the baseline and continued to play the match on her terms. Williams fought off four set points in total, serving at 5-6 and then deep in the tie-break, but she could not quite keep up. By the end of the second set, Sakkari had served more aces and hit more winners.

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As Williams entered the final set panting audibly between most points, it seemed another defeat could be on the cards as Sakkari led 2-0. But Williams found another gear, winning three games in a row. At 3-3 and 30-30, she thundered a 124mph ace down the T and punctuated her hold of serve with a roar. When Sakkari finally relented at 3-4 in the third set with three unforced errors, Williams ensured she would not have another chance.

Despite the disappointment of losing in four grand slam finals across 2018 and 2019, Williams played many quality matches along the way. This year has been different. Her level of play has dropped, her feet have been slower, her timing in both groundstrokes has been problematic and few opponents have hesitated to impose their games on her. But in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where she secured a 100th win at the venue, she may have just turned a corner.

Williams will next face Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova, who beat Alize Cornet 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3. A Wimbledon semi-finalist in 2010, the 32-year-old spent almost two and a half years away from tennis after the birth of her son, Alexander. The US Open marks her first event back. She is now in the quarter-finals.

In the men’s draw, Dominic Thiem reached the quarter-finals with a statement 7-6 (4), 6-1, 6-1 win over youngster Félix Auger-Aliassime, underlining his credentials as one of the favourites to win his first slam title in the absence of Novak Djokovic. He will face Australia’s Alex de Minaur, who defeated Vasek Pospisil 7-6 (6), 6-3, 6-2.

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