Some of Serena Williams‘ earliest memories are of schoolwork. Learning the alphabet in particular. She stayed up doing an assignment, but kept erasing her writing, crying because it wasn’t perfect. In the instance she remembered, she never finished the homework.
“That’s been really the story of my life,” she said Thursday night.
The story of the last two years has been Williams’ unfinished business in Grand Slams. She reached the finals of the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 2018 and 2019 and lost each match, so far unable to win a 24th major to tie Margaret Court‘s record total.
Imperfection marked Williams’ return to competition in August during the coronavirus pandemic. She played five matches. All five went the full three sets. At the U.S. Open this week, she swept American Kristie Ahn in the first round, but dropped her opening service game each time.
Then on Thursday, Williams appeared en route to a more Serena-like rout of 117th-ranked Russian Margarita Gasparyan.
She was up a set and a break within 45 minutes. Then Gasparyan broke back and, on Williams’ next service game, made her play 16 points to hold. Williams broke Gasparyan one more time for the 6-2, 6-4 victory.
“I think that’s been what’s holding me back is I get frustrated,” Williams said. “But I’m out here, and I’m fighting. If anything, it could help me know what not to do next time.”
Next up is an anticipated third-round duel with 2017 U.S. Open Sloane Stephens on Saturday. The streaky Stephens swept 130th-ranked Olga Govortsova of Belarus 6-2, 6-2 in a much more routine victory earlier Thursday. It marked the first time since last September that Stephens won back-to-back matches.
“I played well, built on my first match,” said Stephens, who entered the Open with a 2020 record of 1-7. “Really looking forward to [playing in the third round], another shot just to have an opportunity to play, obviously, without having played that much this year.”
Williams is 5-1 against Stephens, winning the last four since Stephens upset her in the 2013 Australian Open quarterfinals. That marked the first time Williams lost to a younger American, and that’s only happened three other times since (Madison Brengle, Sofia Kenin and Shelby Rogers).
“She’s beaten me before, so she knows how to play well,” Williams said of Stephens. “She looks like she’s not taking a lot of energy and then, bam, there’s five winners.”
The Williams-Stephens winner could play more Americans — potentially, No. 22 seed Amanda Anisimova in the fourth round, No. 7 Madison Keys in the quarterfinals and No. 2 Sofia Kenin in the semifinals.
Williams leads the U.S. Olympic race for four singles berths. Stephens is well outside a qualifying spot but has nine months to chase points. The Olympic field is determined by the WTA rankings after the 2021 French Open.
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