For a 40-minute stretch in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, the top two American women put on quite a show. Both hit serves topping 115 mph. Both whipped groundstrokes to the corners. Both covered a lot of ground, extending points with leg-churning defense. Both showed the occasional sign of nerves, reflecting what a big deal this was, in part because the 15th-seeded Stephens already was one of only three players to beat No. 1 Williams this season.
Until, that is, the score was 4-all in the first set Sunday. That’s when Williams took over.
The 20-year-old Stephens‘ time at the top of tennis may come. For now, the 31-year-old Williams is still as good as it gets. Taking eight of the last nine games, defending champion Williams returned to the quarterfinals at Flushing Meadows by beating Stephens 6-4, 6-1.
“When you give her that opportunity to take that step forward, she definitely makes her move,” Stephens said. “Unfortunately, today she made her move. I just couldn’t get back in.”
Still, all in all, it was remarkably compelling and, within individual points, rather evenly played for what turned out to be such a runaway.
“I definitely think it was a high-quality match,” said Williams, 64-4 with eight titles this year. “We both came out today to play.”
She advanced to play No. 18 Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain, who defeated No. 8 Angelique Kerber of Germany 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3). Asked whether there’s any chance of a letdown after getting past Stephens, Williams replied: “Absolutely not. I mean, I’ve been at this for a long time, so for me in my career, there are no letdowns.”
Two other fourth-round women’s matches were scheduled for later Sunday: No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska vs. No. 24 Ekaterina Makarova, and No. 5 Li Na vs. No. 9 Jelena Jankovic.
In men’s third-round action, defending champion Andy Murray struggled with his breathing on a muggy afternoon but otherwise faced little trouble in a 7-6 (2), 6-2, 6-2 victory over 47th-ranked Florian Mayer of Germany. Murray has won 29 of his last 31 Grand Slam matches, a run of success that includes his first two major titles — at the U.S. Open last September and Wimbledon this July — along with two runner-up finishes.
“The expectations are higher, but there’s not as much pressure to win,” the third-seeded Murray said. “I feel much more comfortable coming into these events than this time last year.”
In the fourth round, he’ll play 65th-ranked Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan, who eliminated No. 20 Andreas Seppi 6-3, 6-4, 2-6, 3-6, 6-1.
Top-seeded Novak Djokovic — the man Murray beat in last year’s final at Flushing Meadows, and in this year’s final at Wimbledon — played 95th-ranked Joao Sousa of Portugal at night. The winner of that faces either the last American man in the field, 109th-ranked wild-card entry Tim Smyczek, or 43rd-ranked Marcel Granollers of Spain.
Former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, who won the U.S. Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2002, reached the fourth round in New York for the first time since 2006 by defeating 102nd-ranked Evgeny Donskoy 6-3, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-1.