NEW YORK (AP) — This was, in just about every measurable way, an up-and-down performance by Serena Williams, filled with double-faults — 10 in all — and two dozen other unforced errors.
With her bid for a true Grand Slam at stake, and facing a qualifier ranked only 110th, Williams was far from dominant in the second round of the U.S. Open on Wednesday, before pulling ahead and pulling out a 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory over Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands.
“Today, I was a little tight,” Williams said in her on-court interview. “I think it showed.”
She got broken early. She double-faulted four times — yes, four — in one game. She didn’t manage to earn a break point against the strong-serving Bertens until the 10th game. Williams made 26 of her 34 unforced errors in the first set alone, which she repeatedly was rather close to letting slip away, including down 4-0 in the tiebreaker.
But as the 33-year-old American has demonstrated time and time again during her remarkable career, she can bring out her best when she needs it.
“I know that I can try to make a comeback,” Williams said, “or try to make a run for it.”
Bertens helped out with some shaky play, which probably wasn’t all that surprising given she only once has made it to the third round in 14 career major tournaments.
Williams, in contrast, has won the past four major titles, a streak that began at last year’s U.S. Open, and 21 overall. If she can win five more matches at Flushing Meadows — starting in the third round against Bethanie Mattek-Sands in an all-U.S. matchup Friday — Williams would complete the first calendar-year Grand Slam in tennis since Steffi Graf in 1988.
Also on the line for Williams: A 22nd major singles championship would equal Graf for the most in the Open era, which began in 1968, and second-most in history behind Margaret Court’s 24. Plus, Williams is trying to become the first woman since Chris Evert in 1975-78 to win four consecutive U.S. Opens.
“Right now, she’s on a mission to get a record,” said Mattek-Sands, a 30-year-old wild-card entry, “and I’m here, playing my game.”
Earlier Wednesday, Mardy Fish heard the spectators chanting his name and saw their standing ovation as his last tournament came to an end with a 2-6, 6-3, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 loss to 18th-seeded Feliciano Lopez. Fish hadn’t entered the U.S. Open since a panic attack forced him to withdraw before facing Roger Federer in 2012, and now that he has worked to deal with his anxiety disorder, the former top-10 player wanted to say goodbye to his sport with one last hurrah in New York.
“I accomplished everything that I set out to this summer,” the 33-year-old American said, “and I’m happy about that.”
Mattek-Sands made it to the third round at Flushing Meadows for the first time in 13 appearances by beating another American, CoCo Vandeweghe, 6-2, 6-1.
“You know what? Thirty is the new 21,” Mattek-Sands said.
She is best known in tennis circles for her original on-court outfits — from knee-high socks to a cowboy hat, and plenty more — and her doubles success this year, winning the Australian Open and French Open with Lucie Safarova. They won’t be a duo at the U.S. Open, however, because Safarova withdrew with an injury.
And as for a fashion statement against Williams, who has won both of their previous meetings?
“I’ll have to see,” Mattek-Sands said, “what I’ve got packed in my bag.”
Perhaps Williams’ uneven showing against Bertens was a result of being a tad rusty. In the first round on Monday, Williams’ opponent, Vitalia Diatchenko, hurt her left foot while running sprints before the match and could barely move. Williams won 32 of 37 points in that one, which lasted about a half-hour until Diatchenko stopped playing while down 6-0, 2-0.
Bertens provided a sterner test, hitting serves at more than 110 mph and hanging in with Williams on lengthy baseline exchanges. Truth is, though, Williams was her own biggest problem, especially with all of those double-faults.
Williams complained earlier this season about a sore right elbow, and while her serve is the most difficult to deal with on the women’s tour, this isn’t the first time she couldn’t put the ball where she wanted to. She’s only lost twice in 52 matches in 2015, and in one of those setbacks, she double-faulted 12 times.