The unquestioned favorite stamped her ticket to her third French Open semifinal appearance in four years and took a significant step toward repeating as champion.
Putintseva was appearing in the first Grand Slam quarterfinal of her career, and although the young Kazakh gave Williams a run for her money, she wilted in the match's biggest moments.
The 21-time Grand Slam champion got off to an uneven, choppy start that likely wasn't helped by the weather conditions.
Play had to be temporarily halted in the third game due to rain, and when the action resumed, Putintseva broke Williams and then consolidated with a hold to race out to a 3-1 lead.
Serena then began to bounce back in typical fashion by sandwiching a break of Putintseva in between two holds and regaining the lead at 4-3. As David Waldstein of the New York Times pointed out, the underdog started to display some inconsistency after Williams played some sloppy tennis in the early going:
As Dawn Rhodes of the Chicago Tribune noted, Serena appeared to be in a feeling-out process rather than going full bore:
A Putintseva hold made the score 5-5 when Serena was on the verge of potentially taking the opening set.
Douglas Robson of USA Today believed the rainy, windy weather was partially to blame for Williams' struggles:
While the conditions were an issue for Serena, ESPN's Brad Gilbert felt as though Putintseva was using them to her advantage:
A hold by Serena during the ensuing game would have guaranteed at least a tiebreak, but the pesky Putintseva picked up her second break of the set. She then confidently held to take the set 7-5 and pin Williams' back against the wall.
Putintseva showed her excitement after winning set point, via Roland Garros on Twitter:
As seen in the following graphic from SI Tennis, Putintseva's excellent return game over the course of the French Open reigned supreme over Serena's typically dominant serving in the first set:
Williams largely dictated the play in the opening set, but it didn't work to her advantage because she made far too many mistakes:
The negativity continued to snowball for Serena at the start of the second set, as Putintseva immediately broke her serve, but the favorite quickly turned the complexion of the match around after that.
Williams reeled off four consecutive games won, including two breaks of Putintseva's serve to take firm control of the set.
While Serena seemed down and out, ESPN's Patrick McEnroe wasn't the least bit surprised to see her turn things around:
The gritty Putintseva fought back to make it 4-5 on serve with an opportunity to push toward a tiebreak with a hold, and she had Williams on the ropes at times thanks to rallies such as this one:
A critical error gave Serena the set, though, as Putintseva double-faulted at 30-40 and gave the American megastar new life.
According to WTA Director of Content and Publications Kevin Fischer, the scales tipped in Serena's favor due to her advantage in third-set experience and success at Grand Slams:
Williams' long track record of playing in big matches was evident in the third set, as she jumped all over her youthful counterpart, seizing a 4-0 lead behind a pair of breaks.
Putintseva tried to keep herself in the match and had a break-point opportunity while trailing 0-4, but Serena hunkered down for the hold before finishing off the match two games later.
Beating the world's 60th-ranked player came with some challenges for Williams, but she found a way to get the job done through her trademark toughness and determination.
Serena will be a big favorite in the semis against Kiki Bertens, and a victory against the surprising semifinalist would set the stage for a finals clash against Garbine Muguruza or Samantha Stosur.
Williams is expected to win it all regardless, but Muguruza could be the biggest obstacle standing between her and Grand Slam title No. 22.
Muguruza beat Serena in the round of 64 at the 2014 French Open, and she is one of the few players who can come close to matching the 34-year-old veteran's power.
Serena fell unexpectedly to Angelique Kerber at this year's French Open and Roberta Vinci at last year's U.S. Open, so while she is easily the biggest name and best player remaining in the field, a title is far from a lock if she doesn't improve upon Thursday's performance.
Serena was very much in danger of falling to Putintseva Thursday, and while most observers likely believed she would come back, even Williams herself wasn't so sure, according to Nick McCarvel of USA Today:
While Williams found a way to scratch and claw her way to victory, Putintseva was left to wonder what could have been.
Even so, the young Kazakh had a fairly positive outlook in the aftermath, per WTATennis.com: "I think the match was very close and very far from being on my side. I was trying to do everything what I can, to run, to cover, to attack when I can, to go forward. But it just was unlucky situation end of the second set for me. But it's okay. I mean, still have some years to play Grand Slams."
Thursday's match represented a golden opportunity for Putintseva to put herself in position to win a major title, but at just 21 years of age with plenty of tools at her disposal, she should have more chances moving forward.
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