NEW YORK – It took seven minutes for Bethanie Mattek-Sands to set the pace against Serena Williams on Friday night.
Mattek-Sands, who earned a wildcard entry to the main draw, served first. She fought off a break point to take the 1-0 lead, then built double-break point and converted to go up 2-0. She fought off another break point to go up 3-0. All in seven minutes.
Both players had predicted an aggressive match – and before a raucous crowd, they more than delivered. For nearly an hour, it looked like Mattek-Sands might become the villain in Serena’s fairytale year.
Mattek-Sands took the first set and held serve through six games in the second. She broke Serena’s serve as the 21-time Grand Slam champion served for the second set, bringing the set to 5-all.
But then, like so many other potential spoilers this year, Mattek-Sands ran out of steam. Or, really, she sparked the fire that is Serena. And once that fire ignites, there’s no controlling it. From 5-5, Serena won eight straight games to close out the 3-6, 7-5, 6-0 victory.
“She played really well. She played a really aggressive game,” Serena said in her post-match press conference. “I don’t think her level really dropped. I thought I just picked up my level.”
Her fairytale continues – but the first two sets Friday, she faced an intense gut check.
Mattek-Sands is ranked 100 places higher than Serena in the WTA rankings, the No. 101 playing the No. 1. This is her 13th U.S. Open, but only her first appearance in the third round. She played crisp, clean tennis as she broke Serena twice in the first set. That’s all she really had to do because, as so often happens, Serena was busy beating herself.
Trailing 3-5, Serena had double-break point to stay in the set. She failed to convert, one of her 15 missed opportunities in the match. At deuce, Serena overshot a forehand, slamming the ball when she could have dropped it in at the net. That gave Mattek-Sands set point. Serena shanked another forehand wide. First set to Mattek-Sands. Serena had 14 unforced errors in that set; Mattek-Sands had one.
As the players walked to their seats between sets, the DJ in Arthur Ashe Stadium played “Let it go,” the song made famous by the Disney movie “Frozen.” If Serena didn’t heed the message, her historic year would have soon ended.
Every time she steps onto the court, Serena knows how much history is on the line. She says she tries to just concentrate on the task at hand, on the match of the day. But it’s impossible to forget that with a win at the U.S. Open, she’d become the first player to complete a calendar Grand Slam since Steffi Graf did so in 1988; that she’d pass Chris Evert for most U.S. Open wins; that she’d be even with Graf at the top of the all-time Grand Slam win list in the Open Era.
“I mean, it’s there. I’m not a robot or anything,” she said in her post-match press conference.
The second set stayed on serve through six games. Serena had missed 11 of 12 break point opportunities to that point. When she converted, she crouched to the ground, looked to the stands and let out her trademark “Come on,” fists and racket in the air. She draws energy from the crowd in New York, and on Friday, the fans were sending her as much as possible.
In the break between the second and third sets, the DJ playing “Keep this party going.” Serena heeded that message. The fairytale goes on. She’ll face fellow American Madison Keys on Sunday. Keys advanced with a 6-3, 6-2 win over higher-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska.