Serena Williams sets up US Open showdown vs. Sloane Stephens

NEW YORK — Yes, Serena Williams won in straight sets again. And yes, she moved into an all-American showdown at the U.S. Open against Sloane Stephens. Still, this victory did not quite go according to plan.

Her serve only so-so at times, her footwork a bit off, Williams got by and got through Thursday night against an opponent ranked just 117th, beating Margarita Gasparyan 6-2, 6-4 and letting out a cry of “Yes!” at the end that reverberated in a nearly empty Arthur Ashe Stadium.

It sounded more like relief than excitement.

“The only thing that gets me flustered is really me, like, because I always feel like I’m not winning every point. I mean, like, that doesn’t make sense,” said Williams, who has won six of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles at Flushing Meadows and was the runner-up the past two years.

“I just think with the pressure and everything that I felt like I just needed to be perfect. I always feel like I’m not perfect unless I’m perfect,” she said. “That’s not a fun way to live your career and live your life.”

Williams, whose older sister, Venus, was one of the few people in the stands, said whatever blips came Thursday “could help me know what not to do next time.”

That’ll be Saturday against Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion.

It is their seventh matchup; Williams leads 5-1, including victories in the past four meetings, but they last played at the 2015 French Open. Stephens’ lone head-to-head victory came all the way back at the 2013 Australian Open.

This calibre of contest certainly doesn’t feel as if it belongs in merely the third round at a Slam, but that’s the luck of the draw this time.

“I’m playing such a good player so early,” Williams said, “so I have to bring what I can even more.”

What will also be odd: the quiet.

All spectators were banned from Flushing Meadows this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I know if there were fans it would be so lit, and I’m kind of sad that we’re not playing in front of fans, because it would be so fun,” said the 26th-seeded Stephens, who advanced by defeating Olga Govortsova 6-2, 6-2. “The atmosphere won’t be as big, but obviously a big opportunity to play against the greatest player in the world. So, yeah, unfortunate but still fortunate.”

Williams turns 39 this month and expended a lot of energy lately. All five matches she played from the resumption of the tour after its COVID-19 hiatus to the start of the U.S. Open went three sets; her record was 3-2.

Both U.S. Open wins came in straight sets, at least.

But things weren’t as easy as they might have been against Gasparyan, who deploys a one-handed backhand and whose only trip to the fourth round at a major ended with a loss to Williams at the 2016 Australian Open.

Playing with a strip of tape on the outside of her left leg, Williams served for the first set at 5-1 and got broken.

She went up 4-2 in the second set and got broken, dropped 8 of 10 points in one stretch and found herself at 4-all.

In all, she put only 58% of her first serves in and was broken three times.

Light rain fell during the warmup, so Ashe could be turned into an indoor facility. It remained closed for the match that followed — Andy Murray against Felix Auger-Aliassime — and a serious downpour loudly pelted the roof.

Louis Armstrong Stadium was covered during the second set of 2019 men’s runner-up Daniil Medvedev’s 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win over 116th-ranked Christopher O’Connell, and stayed that way for two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka’s 6-1, 6-3 victory over No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka.

Matches on all the outside courts were suspended in the evening because of the shower.

Earlier winners included No. 2 Dominic Thiem, No. 11 Karen Khachanov, 2014 champion Marin Cilic and unseeded Americans Frances Tiafoe and J.J. Wolf.

No. 14 Grigor Dimitrov and No. 25 Milos Raonic were eliminated.

No. 9 seed Johanna Konta lost 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 to Sorana Cirstea, and No. 10 Garbine Muguruza — who owns two major titles — was beaten 7-5, 6-3 by Tsvetana Pironkova, who took a three-year break from professional tennis to have a son and is in her first tournament since Wimbledon in 2017.

“It’s just great to be playing without that extra pressure that I had on my myself before,” the 32-year-old Bulgarian said. “Before it was, like, almost a life-and-death situation for me to win a match. Right now, it’s not really like that.”

Other women moving on included No. 2 Sofia Kenin, who won the Australian Open in February; No. 7 Madison Keys, No. 15 Maria Sakkari, No. 18 Donna Vekic and No. 22 Amanda Anisimova, a 19-year-old American who beat 16-year-old American Kristina Scott.

“It was weird, because I’ve actually never played someone who is younger than me in a Grand Slam,” said Anisimova, a semifinalist at last year’s French Open. “It was a first for me. I was pretty nervous.”

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