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Serena Williams finishes strong, ousts Sloane Stephens at U.S. Open

Serena Williams returns a shot during her women's

Serena Williams returns a shot during her women's singles third round match against Sloane Stephens on Day 6 of the U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Saturday in Flushing Meadows. Credit: Getty Images/Al Bello

Serena Williams is starting to look like Serena Williams.

You know, big serve, big groundstrokes, big heart, greatest of all-time sort of thing.

After dropping the first set to Sloane Stephens on Saturday, Williams flipped the switch. Though Stephens had won that first set comfortably and had Williams on a string, that string came unraveled in the second set.

Williams started pounding her serve, walloping her groundstrokes and moving her feet to smoothly advance into the round of 16 at the U.S. Open with a 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 win in Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was  the 43rd time in a Grand Slam event she had won after losing the first set.

And she did it without a certain sense of frustration she had evinced in recent matches.

“That's my thing is just try to stay calm and be more serene,” Williams said.

Next up for Williams is someone who has the confidence of a win over her, and it was just last week. She'll face Maria Sakkari of Greece who scored a 6-3, 6-1 over American Amanda Anisimova.

Sakkari defeated Williams in the third round of the Western & Southern Open at the National Tennis Center in a tournament moved from Cincinnati to create the Double in the Bubble. Williams had the match on her racket in the second set, was broken, looked dejected and went on to lose rather meekly in three sets. There was no dejection on Saturday.

“You have to come up with some great tennis. Otherwise there is no chance against her,” Sakkari said. “So the keys were to stay in it, to make the match as physical as I could.”

And that strategy took a toll, though on Saturday Williams looked as fit and determined as she has all year, and the line of demarcation was her first serve of the second set. She started off ace, ace and closed it out with relative ease. She also fought off a break point in the fifth game, another in the fifth game of the third set, and was rolling.

“I just missed all of them in the first set, so I think in the second set I feel like my serve percentage went up a little more and I had to start making a few more,” said Williams of her improved serving prowess as the match wore on.

“She raised her level and she started serving a bit better,” Stephens said.  "Overall I didn't think I did anything wrong, necessarily. Tried to stay in the match as best I could. Yeah, she just played better today.”

Williams, who turns 39 this month, is going for her 24th Grand Slam title, which would tie Margaret Court for most ever singles majors. She’s finished runner-up at the Open the past two years, losing to Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu, who chose not to defend her title because of fitness concerns. Of Williams’ six Open titles, the last one came in 2014.

Tiafoe: lone U.S. male survivor

There were 22 American men in the 128-player draw to start the Open. One survives to play the second week. Frances Tiafoe defeated Marton Fucsovics of Hungary, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2, to advance to the round of 16 where he will face Daniil Medvedev, the tournament’s No. 3 seed and fifth-ranked player in the world. Medvedev defeated the other remaining American, J.J. Wolf, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2. Tiafoe lost to Medvedev, last year’s losing finalist to Rafal Nadal, in the first round of the Australian Open, the only Grand Slam played so far this year . . . Canadian Vasek Popisil is having his best Open, getting to the fourth round with a five-set win over No. 8 seed Roberto Bautista Agut.

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