Courtside Chat from the US Open: Serena rallies past Stephens in three

Courtside Chat from the US Open: Serena rallies past Stephens in three

Live thoughts and analysis of this marquee third-rounder—from inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.

On Saturday afternoon inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, Ed McGrogan live-blogged Serena Williams' third-round win over compatriot and fellow former US Open champion Sloane Stephens. Relive the match below, as it happened, and stay tuned to for additional analysis from Steve Tignor.

4:12 PM—FINAL: Serena Williams def. Sloane Stephens, 2-6, 6-2, 6-2.

With her third break of serve on the day, Serena improved to 6-1 against Sloane and is into the fourth round. Two things surprised me about how this match ended:

—Serena closed this one out like she was playing a no-name at a much lesser tournament. Not that she hasn't played really well against Sloane before, but this kind of command was something we haven't seen from Williams on a big stage for a while. Very impressive considering her recent history in third sets.

—Sloane was sensational in the first set; scroll down for the numbers and observations. But she wilted as soon as Serena made her push in the second set, and never challenged the 38-year-old in the third. I wouldn't exactly compare it to Stephens' French Open final loss to Simona Halep, when she couldn't sustain an early lead, but like the Romanian, Serena responded, and Sloane couldn't raise her level to match.

Also, in Serena's player suite: her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian:

One of the few spectators in Arthur Ashe Stadium. (Getty Images)

4:08—Sloane must hold, as Serena holds at 15 for a 5-2 lead.

Williams is up to 12 aces (Sloane has none), and has won 78 percent of her first-serve points. She's won just 33 percent on her second serve, so if Stephens can apply some pressure, there would seem to be an opening.

But she needs to hold her own serve first.

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4:05 PM—Stephens holds for 2-4

Time is running short on Sloane. But this also the time of a match where Serena has shown to be vulnerable. Let's see if the pressure of closing—internally and from the other side of the net—surfaces.

4:00 PM—Williams quells a would-be push from Stephens.

Sloane wins the longest rally of the match for 0-30—15 shots, I believe—which ends with a Serena forehand into net. But four points later, it's Williams who leads 4-1. Her first serve continues to land and keep Stephens on the defensive from the start of the point. It's still second-set Serena from a groundstroke perspective, too.

3:55 PM—After another routine Williams hold, Stephens piles up errors and is broken.

Taking the ball earlier and hitting it with conviction, Serena races to triple break point. Sloane saves them all, but a loose forehand wide—followed immediately by a sharp slap of her thigh—gives Serena a fourth break chance. This time, Williams wins it, off another Stephens error, and leads 3-1

Each set has been one-way traffic so far.

3:46 PM—Stephens answers, and it's 1-1.

3:44 PM—Serena holds for 1-0.

Winning percentage on first-serve points: Sloane Stephens 22 of 37 (59%); Serena Williams 30 of 40 (75%). Biggest statistical shift from the first set to the second.

3:38 PM—The players have traded 6-2 sets.

Finishing the game with a running crosscourt forehand winner, Serena breezes into a decider. Stephens is a paragon of stoicism, but you could still sense an energy dip from her as Williams' form rose.

As I mentioned off the top, these two have played three three-set matches against each other, and all of them were won by the player who lost the first set.

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3:34 PM—Serena punctuates a love hold with an unreturned first serve out wide.

She leads 5-2, after just 1:07. There should be no physical issues that confront either player in a theoretical third set.

In total, Serena has hit 18 winners, and 18 unforced errors.

3:32 PM—Serena breaks serve for the first time, and takes a 4-2 lead.

Serena makes her push, and earns a break point. She looks quicker overall, before and during the point. But a big Stephens crosscourt forehand catches the line.

Two points later, Serena gets another chance to break. This time, Stephens' forehand strays wide. It's the first time Stephens looks flummoxed; there wasn't much pressure on the ball Serena hit just before.

3:26 PM—All holds in the second thus far, with Serena up 3-2.

Serena is taxed on serve at 2-2, after having game point. She double faults at deuce—originally called a let, a Stephens challenge changes the call. But for one of the first noticeable times today, Serena works her way out of trouble with her first serve. A Stephens error gets Williams out of trouble; Serena is trying to get vocal when the opportunities present themselves.

3:14 PM—After Serena holds to began the second set, Stephens answers in kind.

Up to this point, Sloane has made 80 percent of her first serves and won 71 percent of those points. Of the six second serves she's had to hit, she won the point four times. Fourteen winners against five unforced errors. This match may yet reach a point where it's about more than just the stats, but not right now. Stephens is simply playing incredibly clean ball.

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3:06 PM—With a love hold, Stephens wins a 39-minute first set, 6-2.

Would it have been that straightforward with a sold-out crowd in Ashe? Eh, maybe, considering Serena's form. But all credit to Stephens, who has held serve remarkably well and has take advantage of every opportunity given.

3:03 PM—Stephens takes a double-break lead at 5-2.

Serena's lack of foot speed relative to her opponent is forcing her to hit exceptional shots against Stephens, who has controlled the majority of rallies with her forehand. Sloane is getting ample to size up her preferred groundstroke, hitting it with plenty of spin and with plenty of margin. It hasn't been a great showing for Serena thus far, who has donated plenty of errors.

2:52 PM—Serena avoids first-set disaster with an adventurous hold.

Leading 40-30, Williams hit consecutive short backhands wide, with plenty of court to aim at each time. She would save the ensuing break point, plus another one later in the game with an ace.

On an eminently comfortable day in Queens—ideal temperature, with the court bathed in shade—Serena keeps herself in the set; Stephens now leads 3-2.

2:40 PM—Stephens gets the first break of serve for a 2-1 lead.

The 26th seed backs it up with a crosscourt forehand winner to consolidate for 3-1, then strikes a down-the-line backhand winner to begin the next game, in total silence. Literally—not one clap. Williams' team has been a more vocal presence up to this point, though it's not a high bar to clear.

2:28 PM—The match is underway, with Williams serving:

Ed McGrogan

Significant off-court news broke just as this match was about to begin: the top-ranked doubles team of Kristina Mladenovic and Timea Babos has been withdrawn from the US Open due to a quarantine notice issued from public health officials in Nassau County, N.Y.

Mladenovic's playing status had been in question ever since the Frenchwoman was found to have been in close contact with Benoit Paire, who tested positive for COVID-19 just before the tournament began. Mladenovic is staying at a hotel in Nassau County, along with nearly the entire tournament field.

On Friday, New York state officials held up the start of Frenchman Adrian Mannarino's match with Alexander Zverev for more than two hours to determine whether Mannarino—who, like Mladenovic, was traced to Paire—should be allowed to play; he eventually was permitted to compete.

The full statement, from the USTA:

Public health officials of Nassau County, N.Y., have issued quarantine notices for all individuals who had prolonged close contact to a person who previously tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus. As the players are staying in Nassau County, the quarantine notices prevent any of these individuals from commuting to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City. The USTA is obligated to adhere to government guidance at the State, City and County level. All persons who were identified as having prolonged close contact with the infected player will quarantine in their rooms for the remainder of their quarantine period. Kristina Mladenovic is one of these individuals, and as the Women’s Doubles competition has begun, the women’s doubles team of Kristina Mladenovic and Timea Babos has been withdrawn from the US Open.

Mladenovic and Babos, now out of the US Open. (Andrew Ong/USTA)

Greetings from Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the first marquee match of this year’s US Open is about to take place: Serena Williams vs. Sloane Stephens. As one of the fortunate few allowed to watch it in person, I’ll be providing commentary and analysis throughout the third-rounder; if you have questions about the contest, or about the strange scene surrounding it, tweet me @EdMcGrogan and I’ll address it here.

Despite Williams’ 5-1 record against Stephens, this remains a tough match to predict. For one, neither player came into the tournament resembling anything close to their best, though both have looked comfortable through two rounds at the Open. More to the point, both Serena and Sloane are capable of jaw-dropping brilliance—and then, at a moment’s notice, puzzling lapses, even after years of success at the sport’s highest level. Nowhere was that more evident than in Williams’ loss to Maria Sakkari at this same venue a week ago, but it’s also been a part of their head-to-head history. In their all three of their three-set matches, the player who won the first set lost in the end.

Stephens and Williams cross paths in the quarterfinals of the 2013 Australian Open. (Getty Images)

One of those three-setters came at the 2013 Australian Open, where Stephens earned her solitary victory over Williams, and expectations were raised. It took her years to reach them, but in winning the US Open four years later, she demonstrated a level of play that, on the right fortnight, can lead to a major title. Which means, of course, that on the right day, she can defeat anyone, including Serena.

It’s also been five years since Stephens and Williams have played each other—Sloane lost at Roland Garros after winning the first set 6-1—in part because of Serena’s hiatus from the game to start a family. They’ve played just once on hard courts since the 2013 US Open, the only time they’ve met at this tournament. For a variety of reasons, expect a feeling-out process, and then hopefully some fireworks.