Sloane Stephens

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Serena Williams outlasts Sloane Stephens at U.S. Open

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Serena Williams rallied past Sloane Stephens 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 to reach the U.S. Open fourth round on Saturday, keeping alive her latest bid for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title.

Williams, trying to tie Margaret Court‘s record, won 10 of the last 12 games after struggling with her serve in the first set. She avoided what would have been her earliest U.S. Open exit since her debut in 1998 at age 16.

“It was intense,” said the third seed Williams, who won her fifth straight match with the 2017 U.S. Open champion Stephens in their first duel in five years. “We always have some really incredible matches. It brings out the best in my fitness when I play Sloane.”

Williams advanced to a Monday match with No. 15 Maria Sakkari of Greece. Sakkari beat Williams in three sets at last week’s Western & Southern Open, also held at the U.S. Open grounds in New York.

No. 2 Sofia Kenin is a potential semifinal opponent. No. 4 Naomi Osaka is the top seed remaining in the other half of the draw.

Since returning from childbirth in 2018, Williams lost each of the last two finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Daughter Olympia, who turned 3 on Tuesday, was among the few spectators on Saturday.

“I hope that she saw her momma fighting,” Williams said in an on-court interview. “I don’t think she was paying attention, between you and me. She might have been playing with some princesses upstairs.”

Stephens, the No. 26 seed, entered the Open with a 2020 record of 1-7. The French Open has been her strongest Slam. That tournament begins in two weeks.

US OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens set U.S. Open clash

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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.

US OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

“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 BrengleSofia 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.

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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U.S. Olympic women’s tennis qualifying already looks intense

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Serena Williams is in strong early position to make the 2020 U.S. Olympic team. For everyone else, including older sister Venus Williams, every set of ranking points could be crucial over the next 10 months, including at the upcoming U.S. Open.

The U.S. has seven women in the world top 36 — not including 52nd-ranked Venus — but only four singles players can go to an Olympics from any one country come the rankings cutoff next June.

Serena Williams leads the way for Americans in second place overall in Olympic qualifying — which counts WTA rankings points starting after the 2019 French Open and running through the 2020 French Open. She has 1,885 points despite playing just two events the last two months, taking runner-up at Wimbledon and the Canadian Open.

Only Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, who has already been named Romania’s Opening Ceremony flag bearer, has more Olympic qualifying points (2,395).

After Serena, three more U.S. women are in the top 10 in Olympic qualifying — Sonya Kenin (No. 5), Madison Keys (No. 8) and Alison Riske (No. 10).

Keys, a quarterfinalist or better at all four Grand Slams in her career, jumped from outside the top 20 among Americans to the No. 3 American by notching her biggest title in Ohio last week.

Notables who must improve their ranking start with Venus Williams, who moved from 18th on the U.S. list to eighth by reaching the Cincinnati quarterfinals. She turns 40 before the Tokyo Games and could become the oldest Olympic singles player since the sport returned to the Olympic program following a 64-year break in 1988. She already owns the modern-era record of five Olympic tennis medals from her five previous Games and could still get to the Olympics in doubles if she doesn’t qualify in singles.

Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, is 12th in U.S. Olympic qualifying, winning a total of three matches among four tournaments in the window.

The veterans Williams sisters, Keys and Stephens, who made up the 2016 U.S. Olympic singles team, must fend off an emerging class.

Kenin, 20, backed up her French Open upset of Serena Williams by winning a lower-level event in June and then beating the world Nos. 1 and 2 the last two weeks.

Riske is playing some of the best tennis of her career at age 29. She beat world then-No. 1 Ash Barty to make her first Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon, a week before her wedding.

Then there are two of the phenoms of the year. Coco Gauff, 15, is ninth in U.S. Olympic qualifying after a run to the Wimbledon fourth round. Gauff was granted a wild card into the U.S. Open, after which she can’t play in more than five senior tournaments (and possibly no more than three) until her 16th birthday in March due to WTA age restrictions to keep young teens from burnout.

Amanda Anisimova, 17, is 13th in U.S. Olympic qualifying. Her best results this year — French Open semifinal, Australian Open fourth round — came before the Olympic qualifying window.

It’s looking like the toughest U.S. Olympic women’s singles team to make outright since 2004. Back then, the U.S. had Nos. 4 (Lindsay Davenport), 7 (Jennifer Capriati), 8 (Venus Williams), 11 (Serena Williams) and 18 (Chanda Rubin). Davenport, Capriati and Serena didn’t play at the Athens Games, opening the door for Lisa Raymond to play singles and doubles in Athens.

In 2000, Serena Williams didn’t make the Olympic singles field despite being ranked eighth in the world. A max of three players per nation were taken to Sydney, and the U.S. had Nos. 2, 3 and 6 in Davenport, Venus Williams and Monica Seles.

An Olympic rule mandating a minimum of Fed Cup appearances could affect Tokyo 2020 eligibility. However, the fine print allows for that to be bypassed in discretionary exceptional circumstances.

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MORE: Tokyo 2020 Olympic master competition schedule

U.S. Olympic Women’s Singles Qualifying Standings (Max. 4 can qualify)
1. Serena Williams — 1,885 points
2. Sonya Kenin — 1,081
3. Madison Keys — 972
4. Alison Riske — 802
5. Jennifer Brady — 356
6. Jessica Pegula — 348
7. Madison Brengle — 344
8. Venus Williams — 302
9. Coco Gauff — 298
10. Bernarda Pera — 280
11. Lauren Davis — 245
12. Sloane Stephens — 238
13. Amanda Anisimova — 230