NEW YORK: Six-time champion Serena Williams survived a spirited challenge from unseeded Kaia Kanepi to triumph 6-0, 4-6, 6-3 on Sunday and reach the quarterfinals of the US Open.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion looked set to romp when she seized the first set from Kanepi in just 18 minutes.
But the hard-hitting Estonian, who took out world number one Simona Halep in the first round, settled down in the second, shaking off the partisan crowd in a jammed Arthur Ashe Stadium to break Williams and take a 2-0 lead.
After a Williams double fault gave Kanepi a break for a 5-2 lead, the American answered by winning the next two games.
But she couldn’t convert two break chances in the 10th, and after Williams saved two set points ,Kanepi knotted the match with a service winner on her third set point.
“It wasn’t an easy match at all,” said Williams, who let out a roar after ripping a backhand cross court to hold serve in the opening game of the third set.
“She’s had a lot of big wins in her career. I was just happy to get through it, to be honest.”
Williams took control of the final set with a break for a 2-0 lead, her 18 aces and 47 total winners proving enough in the end to put her through to a quarterfinal clash with Karolína Plíšková, the eighth-seeded Czech who beat Australian Ashleigh Barty 6-4, 6-4.
Pliskova defeated Williams in the semifinals in New York in 2016.
Williams heads into the second week at Flushing Meadows tracking two milestones. A seventh US Open title would see her break out of a tie with Chris Evert for the Open Era record and also equal Australian Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 major titles.
Elsewhere on Sunday, defending champion Sloane Stephens took on 15th-seeded Belgian Elise Mertens.
Stephens is trying to become the first woman to win back-to-back US Open titles since Williams won three straight in 2012, 2013, and 2014.
The third-seeded Stephens is the highest-ranked woman in the draw after the early exits of Halep and #2 Caroline Wozniacki.
In all just three of the top 10 women made it into the round of 16. The departure of Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber, along with Australian Open winner Wozniacki and French Open champ Halep, means that for the second straight year, the Grand Slam titles will go to four different women.
That could be good news for Williams, seeded 17th as she seeks her first Slam title since the 2017 Australian Open when she was already expecting daughter Olympia, who was born on September 1 of last year.
Since returning in March, Williams has withdrawn injured from the French Open and reached the final at Wimbledon, but she needs a US Open title to avoid her first year without a Grand Slam trophy since 2011.
Stephens has put together a respectable season after an alarming dip in her results in the wake of her Grand Slam breakthrough here last year, winning the title in Miami in March and reaching the final of the French Open.
She can expect a stiff challenge from Mertens, a three-time winner on the WTA tour this year who beat Stephens in their only prior encounter two weeks ago in Cincinnati.
Stephens said that setback wasn’t a reliable gauge of her chances against Mertens.
“I was extremely tired coming off of Montréal,” said Stephens, who had reached the final in Canada the week before. “I had set points in the first. Mentally I was tired, I was fried.”
“And my legs feel a lot better than they did on whatever day I played her, I’ll tell you that much,” added Stephens, who will face 19th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia in the quarterfinals.