Serena Williams downs Sakkari to set up Pironkova clash

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Serena Williams' quest for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title is alive and well after she beat Maria Sakkari in three sets to reach the quarter-finals at the US Open.

Six-time champion Serena Williams is on a mission at this year’s US Open and she is now just three wins from the title after she recorded a hard-fought 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 victory, revenge for her defeat by the Greek in the Cincinnati event last week.

The 38-year-old, trying to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam titles, came from 2-0 down in the deciding set to clinch a place in the last eight and a meeting with Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova, who continued her stunning run in her first event back after three years off and the birth of her son by outlasting Alize Cornet of France 6-4, 6-7, 6-3 in a two-hour, 49-minute epic.

No 15 seed Sakkari had beaten Williams in the Cincinnati event, held at the same Flushing Meadows venue, and when she snatched the second-set tiebreak 8-6 and broke early in the third it looked as if history would repeat itself.

But whereas last time Williams wilted in the third set, on Monday, her fitness and mental strength held firm. The former world No 1 broke back for 2-2 and got the vital break for 5-3, thanks to a big return, before serving out for a hard-earned victory, her 100th win on Arthur Ashe Stadium court, giving her a place in her 53rd Grand Slam quarter-final.

“I just felt like I was able to compete longer,” she said. “I was a little fatigued last time and had some cramps, but I felt like Maria played a completely — I felt like she almost played better today. She’s such a good competitor. It was a really intense match. “I think the most pleasing (thing, about the way she’s playing) is just competing. I always compete, but competing and having a good attitude I think is what I’m most satisfied about.”

No fans, less stress

In recent years, Williams has been no stranger to drama on Arthur Ashe stadium court and in some ways, the lack of fans this year seems to be playing into her hands, allowing her to stay calm in the biggest moments.

“It’s definitely less pressure,” she said. “I miss the fans, but this is different. The breaks are a bit longer when there are fans, so there are some pluses and minuses. Honestly, I don’t feel like I’m super different without a crowd but…I’m super passionate. This is my job. This is what I wake up to do. This is what I train to do 365 days of the year. Obviously I miss the crowd, because usually I’m training and I’m playing for the crowd. But now we have a virtual crowd. You know, there is a lot of people that’s supporting. Whether it’s me or my opponent, they are still here to watch a really good match.”

Good start

One break was enough for Williams in the first set, her power giving her the edge over Sakkari, who as always, ran down everything and used her athleticism to great effect. The Greek had three break points in the fifth game, at 0-40 on the Williams serve, but the American’s serve was in the groove and she stayed in front, breaking for 4-2 and then serving out the set.

In Cincinnati, Sakkari stayed with Williams, toe to toe, and when the American couldn’t close it out, she took advantage. This time, Williams stayed level on serve and the set went to a tiebreak. Sakkari led 4-0 but Williams got it back to 6-6 only for Sakkari to pinch it and force a decider.

Down a break

When Williams fell down a break at 2-0 in the third, minds immediately went back to Cincinnati but this time, Williams stepped up her game again, holding serve and then breaking back as Sakkari started to feel the pressure. After both players held for 3-3, Williams moved ahead again and then grabbed the vital break when Sakkari dumped a forehand in the net before serving out for the win.

Pironkova’s dream run continues

After stepping away from the Tour three years ago, Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova said she never thought about returning, and after having her first child in April 2018, her career looked over. But somewhere along the line, she got the bug back, and at 32, she is into the quarter-finals of the US Open for the first time.

It took her almost three hours to get the better of Cornet, who saved a match point in the second set as Pironkova twice failed to serve out the match. But as fatigue set in, Pironkova went for broke and it worked, a massive backhand pass giving her the vital break for 5-3 in the third and she served out to love to clinch her place in the last eight.

“It’s absolutely unreal, I really can’t believe it,” Pironkova said. “Especially that I pulled through today, I was so exhausted by the end of the match, I really didn’t believe I had it in me, but I kept fighting and pulled it off. I think I changed my strategy a little, I started to be more aggressive because I couldn’t run 10 minutes for every point. I’m happy that it worked.”

“I know he’s watching me”

Like Williams, Pironkova is balancing her return with being a mother and she admitted that being away from her son has been testing.

“It’s hard,” she said, wiping away a tear. “I haven’t seen him for two weeks, it gets tougher every day. But I know he’s watching me, I know he’s proud of me and it’s worth it.”

A former Wimbledon semi-finalist, Pironkova loves fast conditions and said she’s looking forward to taking on Williams, although recovery might be an issue.

“I played Serena a few times, she’s a great champion and it’s always an honour to play against her,” she said. “But right now I want an ice bath and a massage for about three hours.”

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