NEW YORK—Sparring partners spent the day exchanging heavy blows and pushing each other into the corners of the court. Serena Williams practiced with Varvara Lepchenko this summer, but the reigning U.S. Open champion was in no mood to go the distance today. Absorbing heavy shots in some physical rallies, Williams showed her fierce appetite for the fight, scoring a 6-3, 6-3 victory to reach the fourth round for the 14th time.
Don't be fooled by the straight-forward scoreline. A tricky wind, the twisting topspin of her left-handed opponent, and the fact that Serena spent some time fighting frustration over failed break-point chances made this a tougher test than the result suggests.
Still, the world No. 1 should draw plenty of positives from her most demanding match of the tournament. She fought with passion, stayed focused despite converting just four of 13 break points, defended her serve with defiance, and moved forcefully to battle past a veteran opponent.
The growth of younger compatriots—Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, and Taylor Townsend—has left Lepchenko, the ninth of 12 Americans ranked in the Top 100, lost in the shuffle. The former world No. 19 has trained extensively at the National Tennis Center, but hasn't always looked at home in Flushing Meadows, falling in the first round in three of her last four appearances. Lepchenko's crackling lefty forehand is her kill shot—Williams didn't always read its direction accurately in the first set—and she leaned into her two-handed backhand with confidence as well, hitting 10 more winners (24 to 14) than the 17-time Grand Slam champion.
The top seed broke first for a 3-1 advantage, but serving with the wind at her back, she struggled to adapt her spin to the swirl that blew up the back of her pink leopard print dress and once knocked Lepchenko's blue baseball cap right off her head. Lepchenko flattened a forehand down the line breaking back for 2-3 before drilling a running forehand pass to hold for 3-3.
It may sound like an innocuous scoreline, but given the fact that Lepchenko had managed to win only three total games in each of her two prior meetings with Williams, her start was empowering—until Serena stepped it up to assert command. Williams answered with an authoritative love hold for 4-3, then broke for the second time with a clenched fist toward her support box. Sliding a low serve out wide with such sidespin that Lepchenko's return rocketed off the chair umpire's seat, Williams closed the first set in 38 minutes.
The world No. 52 sputtered to start the second set, losing the range on her forehand to face triple break point. Digging in, Lepchenko reeled off five straight points to earn a hard-fought hold. The intensity of exchanges escalated as Lepchenko saved three break points, held with an ace for 3-2, then pressured Williams in the following game.
Serena denied two break points for 3-all, then began to target her opponent's two-hander. A double fault followed by a backhand error gave the five-time champion the crucial break and a 4-3 advantage. Serena, who struck with accuracy on the run, never looked back, sealing her 17th consecutive U.S. Open victory in 95 minutes.
Williams launched her Labor Day weekend working hard in a match that should prepare her well for the challenges of the second week.
"My opponent today was spectacular; she's such a great person and it was really a good match," Serena told CBS' Mary Joe Fernandez. "She really raised her game to an unbelievable level. I just tried to hang in there and remember what I needed to do and what I should do."