It took Serena Williams a set and a half to get up to speed Friday night at the U.S. Open.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, her third-round opponent, was a determined speed bump on the highway toward Williams' drive for a calendar year Grand Slam. The veteran Mattek-Sands brought all she had to Arthur Ashe Stadium, but in the end, the weight of Williams' championship game was too much. Williams pulled out a 3-6, 7-5, 6-0 victory.
"I finally raised my game there in the second set," Williams said. "I knew Bethanie would be a fighter."
It's not as if Williams has cruised through three wins in this year's majors. She's accustomed to three-set matches at the biggest events. Each major requires seven victories to claim the title. On the hard courts of the Australian Open, she played three sets twice. On the red clay of the French Open, her least favorite surface, she went three sets five times, including her win over Lucie Safarova in the final. On the grass at Wimbledon, she twice played three sets.
Mattek-Sands didn't seem at all fazed by being in the spotlight. Playing in her 14th U.S. Open, she had never been past the second round. But the 30-year-old has coped with a wide range of injuries and had two hip surgeries, the second last year ending her string of Open appearances dating to 2001. She calls herself a gamer, and her colleagues agree.
"It's fun when you play someone on their 'A' game and you see what your game is all about," Mattek-Sands said. "I did my best today to try and stop her and it wasn't quite enough . . . I love playing on Ashe. The atmosphere is awesome."
So there she was in the first set, holding her serve to start and breaking Williams in the second game. She gave that back in the fifth game, then surprisingly broke Williams again in the sixth and held two more serves to win the set. It was another slow start for Williams, who wasn't serving up to par and was making some bad errors, but Mattek-Sands deserves credit for moving Williams around, staying aggressive and getting to the net whenever she could.
As the second set unfolded, Williams ramped up her game and the pressure, but Mattek-Sands wouldn't back down. Mattek-Sands held off break point after break point. When Williams broke her in the 12th game for the set, she had put herself on the express track. The bagel-job in the final set didn't detract from Mattek-Sands' performance.
In a minor sideshow, two of the sport's most prominent fashionistas showed some restraint Friday night, if you consider Mattek-Sands' tangerine hair something less than outrageous for championship tennis. A black-and-orange sweatband held it back. Mattek-Sands wore a dress with a reddish spaghetti-strap top and black skirt. Black knee socks rose above red-and-black tennis shoes.
Williams wore a black dress with a paint-splatter orangey front and black tennis shoes highlighted with neon chartreuse. All together, their outfits were complementary but well short of the night's talking point.
Williams' race into the record book will continue Sunday when she faces another American, Madison Keys. Keys beat Agnieszka Radwanska handily, 6-3, 6-2.
As Mattek-Sands left the court, Williams joined the applause for her and later said: "She's gone through a lot and has fought to get back here. I have a lot of respect for Bethanie."