Serena Williams had to dig deep to advance to the quarter-finals of the 2018 U.S. Open on Sunday, as Kaia Kanepi bounced back from a rough start to take the six-time champion to a decider.
Williams dominated the first set but regressed in the second before rediscovering her form in the third. Set scores were 6-0, 4-6, 6-3.
Kanepi came into this match having knocked out Simona Halep in the opening round, but if she was hoping to build a reputation as a giant-slayer, Williams served up a rude awakening early.
After a good hold to start, the six-time U.S. Open champion broke serve on her first try.
Tennis writer Matt Zemek was impressed:
The 36-year-old has impressed so far in this tournament, but she played her best tennis yet during the first set of this encounter, running straight through her opponent in no time at all.
With sheer dominance from the baseline and some excellent passing shots, a second break followed shortly after the first. Fans and pundits alike were stunned:
Another easy hold meant Kanepi was serving to avoid a bagel in what seemed a matter of minutes, but Williams didn't hand her a single game in the opener.
Per sportswriter George Bellshaw, it had taken her less than 20 minutes to gain the advantage:
Kanepi had no interest in another bagel in the second set, however, and to the surprise of just about anyone who watched the opener, she immediately grabbed a break of her own.
It was an impressive response from the Estonian, who took full advantage of the handful of mistakes Williams started making to hold for 2-0.
Her opponent hit back with three aces, but Kanepi had momentum on her side, battling to a difficult hold. Live Tennis noted the Estonian was playing much better:
Kanepi kept things simple and gradually put together the points, while Williams couldn't get back to the level she played at in the first set. In the seventh game of the set, Kanepi found a second break, courtesy of Williams' first double-fault of the contest.
The 33-year-old Kanepi couldn't capitalise on her first opportunity to win the set, as Williams broke back straight away, and on her next attempt, she had to save two break points. But after a lengthy back-and-forth, it was Williams who hit the final error, and the match went to a decider.
Bellshaw praised her for her efforts:
Williams started the decider with a hold and grabbed a break in the following game, as she once again limited the mistakes that dogged her in the second set. With another hold, she was suddenly within three games of the quarter-finals.
Kanepi was able to stop the bleeding, but only barely, as Williams' serve was clicking:
She served out the contest in comfortable fashion, booking her spot in the next round.
It will be difficult for anyone to keep Williams from winning a seventh title if she can hit the heights she did in the first set, but the mistakes that crept into her game afterwards will give future challengers hope she can be beaten.