After a sluggish start, Serena Williams rallied to defeat Sloane Stephens in the third round of the United States Open on Saturday.
Williams, in pursuit of a record-equaling 24th Grand Slam singles title, struggled on her serve and groundstrokes in the early stages but found a higher gear to prevail 2-6, 6-2, 6-2.
It was a matchup of two former U.S. Open champions trying to get back into top form.
Stephens, 27, won this title in 2017 and reached the French Open final the following year but has struggled to build on those achievements.
She has been in a funk throughout this abbreviated season: winning just one of her nine singles matches in 2020 before playing in the U.S. Open.
Williams, 38, one of the game’s great champions, lost early at the Australian Open in January and has been inconsistent and occasionally overwrought since the tour resumed last month, losing to the 116th-ranked Shelby Rogers and to the 21st-ranked Maria Sakkari and routinely being pushed to three sets.
But Williams has worked her way back into a better place at this most unusual U.S. Open, which is being played without spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Her serve remains a match-winning shot, and she hit 12 aces against Stephens. After being broken twice in the opening set and struggling with her first-serve percentage, she found her range and often dominated her service games in the final two sets.
Her victory was her sixth in seven matches against Stephens, and it earned her a rematch in the fourth round with Sakkari, the rising Greek star who, like many of the game’s leading players, was watching from the stands on Saturday as Williams and Stephens traded blows.
“It was intense,” Williams said. “I have to say we always have some really incredible matches, and it brings out the best in my fitness when I play Sloane. She’s definitely a great player, and she’s won on this court.”