Serena Williams returns a shot to Maria Sakkari during the...

Serena Williams returns a shot to Maria Sakkari during the Western & Southern Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Tuesday. Credit: Getty Images/Matthew Stockman

Serena Williams had the match on her racket in the ninth game of the second set. That once was a sure thing. Not anymore.

Maria Sakkari broke her in that game, went on to win the tiebreak and then watched Williams fall apart with frustration in the third set. Sakkari, the 21st-ranked player in the world, took down the game’s legend, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-1, in the third round of the Western & Southern Open on Tuesday night at the National Tennis Center.

Williams, coming off a grueling three-set win over Arantxa Rus on Monday, appeared to lose interest after she lost the second set. She rushed her serves to start the third set, did not move well, and appeared to be in physical and mental distress.

“It’s hard to play the way I have been playing and to stay positive,” said Williams, who has now played five three-set matches since returning to tennis last week. “And to play nine hours in a week is too much. I don’t usually play like that. It’s all new for me.”

“I started cramping, but I mean, I shouldn’t have been in that situation.”

And it started so well for her. Williams broke Sakkari in the fourth game of the first set and seem to be in control. But Sakkari started to dig in and forced a break of Williams’ serve in the ninth game.

Williams was given a first-serve time warning down 30-40 in the ninth, then hit a forehand long to be broken. On the changeover, Williams asked the chair umpire to give  her a caution first, saying that she was handling her towels. Among the COVID-19 protocols for tennis is the requirement that players handle their own towels which had always been a job for the ballpersons.

The 38-year-old Williams went on to win the set and had that chance to put it away in the second, but she just couldn’t get control of her power game that propelled her to 23 Grand Slam titles and the pinnacle of the sport.

“So, I mean, yeah, it was hard, but I had so many opportunities to win, and I have to figure that one out, like how to start winning those matches again,” she said. “There is really no excuses, to be honest.”

[BOLD]Djokovic OK.[/BOLD] Novak Djokovic showed no signs of a bad neck in a 6-2, 6-4 win over Tennys Sandgren in the third round.

“Actually I’m pleasantly surprised with the way I recovered and felt today, just overall physically but also with the neck specifically, because that was a little bit of a concern,” Djokovic said.

Djokovic is now 20-0 in this COVID-19 truncated season and won his 17th major singles title at the Australian Open in January, his eighth title in Melbourne.

Defending champion Daniil Medvedev reached the quarterfinals with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Aljaz Bedene. His win last year at the Western & Southern was part of a six-tournament stretch in which he reached every final, including a tough five-set loss to Rafael Nadal in the U.S. Open.

In the women’s tournament, Naomi Osaka rolled past Dayana Yastremska, 6-3, 6-1. Qualifier Jessica Pegula is into the biggest quarterfinal of her career after knocking out No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka, 6-2, 2-6, 6-3.

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