Serena turns it on late in a rocket-fueled win over Kanepi at US Open

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NEW YORK—It’s always something of a risk to fire a winner past Serena Williams. You win the point, yes, but you may soon find yourself losing much more. If there’s anything Serena likes less than losing, it’s having to watch a ball go by her. After all, belting winners is her thing, not yours.

By the first game of the third set on Sunday, Kaia Kanepi had slugged plenty of balls past the six-time Open champion. Kanepi had hauled off, club-like, on service returns. She had sent on-the-run forehands skidding through the corners and into the backstop. She had even taken some of Serena’s best-hit ground strokes and reflexed them back for winners. While Serena dominated a 6-0 first set, Kanepi matched her shot for shot in the second set and won it 6-4. By the end of that set, the 36-year-old American and the 33-year-old Estonian were hurling thunderbolts at each other to the amazement of the Ashe audience.

Now Serena was serving to start the third set, and Kanepi was still matching her, thunderbolt for thunderbolt. Serena hit a backhand winner for 15-0. Kanepi did the same for 15-30. Serena cracked an ace for 30-30, and a forehand winner for 40-30. On the next point, Serena had Kanepi on the run, but Kanepi came up with perhaps her most spectacular shot of the afternoon, a down-the-line bullet that Serena could only watch from afar.

Serena, we soon found out, had finally had enough. She got the advantage back in that game, and won it with—what else?—a winner, this time from the backhand side. Then she stopped, screamed, pumped her arms, and kept screaming until she was nearly doubled over.

​(Anita Aguilar)

Was it a coincidence that the wheels suddenly came off for Kanepi in her next service game? Instead of hitting more winners, she put a forehand into the net, sent a backhand wide, and was broken on a wild forehand error. Each of Kanepi’s misses was followed by a stare from Serena. Kanepi had won the battle with her running forehand, but she would lose the war. Serena would never trail again, and advance 6-0, 4-6, 6-3 in a brisk one hour and 37 minutes.

For the most part, Serena played well. She hit 47 winners and 18 aces, and she put together a flawless first set, winning 24 points to Kanepi’s six. But while 40 percent of Serena’s first serves went for aces, that’s a stat with an upside and a downside. The upside is that she was serving with power; the downside is that she made just 55 percent of her first balls.

Yet Serena’s serve was there for her when she needed it. Up 4-2 in the third, with victory in sight, Serena went down 0-15 when Kanepi cracked a forehand winner. Was Kanepi going to find her range again, now that she was behind in the score? Serena never let her have a chance. She hit a second-serve ace for 15-15, a service winner for 30-15, another service winner for 40-15, and an ace to hold for 5-2.

It was a winning effort for Serena, and it also may end up being good practice. On Tuesday she’ll face another big hitter in Karolina Pliskova, who beat her here two years ago. If their match is anything like this one, it won’t begin in earnest until Pliskova fires a winner past Serena, and Serena returns the favor with a roar.

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