Arthur Ashe Stadium was nearly empty, but it was not quiet at the U.S. Open on a day that would have normally been a hectic Labor Day holiday.
Serena Williams, who has been bolstered by the support of thousands of boisterous fans at the tournament over the years, was her own chorus Monday as she pushed herself to a victory over Maria Sakkari, 6-3, 6-7 (6), 6-3 in the fourth round of the U.S. Open.
“I’m always going to bring that fire and that passion and that Serena to the court,” said Williams, who has been referring to herself in the third person perhaps more than ever during this tournament.
She screamed when she lost points; she screamed when she won points. At one crucial moment, she even made a loud noise when one of Sakkari’s first serves landed in the net.
“I don’t feel like I’m super different without a crowd, but I’m super passionate,” Williams said after the match. “This is my job. This is what I wake up to do. This is what I train to do 365 days of the year.”
Though her intensity was the same, Williams said in an on-court interview after the match that she felt “less pressure” without thousands of fans there desperate for her to win.
“It’s also different because breaks are longer when the fans are here, the clapping is longer – I could have used a little bit of this in this match,” she said with a laugh.
The win was Williams’s 100th career victory in the stadium; Roger Federer is a distant second on the career list, with 77 victories in Ashe.
The win put her into the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam tournament for the 53rd time.
Sakkari, one of the fittest and most athletic players in the sport, was a rare opponent to best Williams in several service categories: she hit 13 aces to Williams’s 12, and she won more points on her first serve. But Williams was more effective at aggressively returning second serves, which proved pivotal as she broke Sakkari’s serve three times and dropped her own just once.
The 13th-seeded Sakkari had defeated the third-seeded Williams two weeks ago in the Western & Southern Open, which was also held on the U.S. Open grounds instead of its usual home in Mason, Ohio, near Cincinnati.
“I was confident. I said to myself ‘I did it once, I can do it again,’” Sakkari said. “That was my mentality up until the end. She just came up with some better tennis when she had to. More experienced, she took her chances when I didn’t.”
Sakkari gained an early edge in the final set by breaking Williams’s serve. Williams all but threw in the towel at a similar juncture in their last match, but with a Grand Slam title on the line, she steeled herself and rallied.
“If you don’t get the chances with the good Serena against you, it’s done, you know?” Sakkari said. “I didn’t get my chances, got broken again. I was ahead, I was a break up, I had to somehow hold serves. One bad game and the match went the other way.”
After a win and a loss against Williams in New York, Sakkari said she was encouraged by her own ability to summon her best tennis without a crowd on hand.
“It’s not easy for everyone to compete without a crowd,” Sakkari said. “Many players were feeling a little bit turned off playing without fans.”
Williams had been turned off by her own effort in her previous match against Sakkari. After squandering a lead against Sakkari in the lead-up tournament, Williams compared her propensity for elongating matches to “dating a guy that you know sucks.”
“It’s like I have got to get rid of this guy. It just makes no sense,” Williams added.
On Monday, Williams laughed when reminded of the analogy.
“I feel this whole tournament I have been doing better with that,” she said. “Thank God I got rid of that guy. I never want to see him again – he was the worst.”
New York Times News Service