New York: Sloane Stephens, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro advanced to the fourth round of the US Open on Friday in contrasting fashion.
US Open champion Stephens kept alive her bid for back-to-back titles in New York, defeating former World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka 6-3, 6-4 in a gritty match to set up a fourth-round showdown with Elise Mertens.
Serena, on the other hand, crushed older sister Venus 6-1, 6-2 in a shockingly subdued third round clash to stay on track for a record equalling 24th Grand Slam title.
Russian Karen Khachanov nearly served up a major US Open upset on Friday, forcing Rafa, World No.1, to rally for a breathless 5-7, 7-5, 7-6(7), 7-6(3) third round win.
Former champion Juan Martin del Potro had eased past Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco with a straight-set victory.
Stephens fends off Azarenka
Third-seeded Stephens was the sharper of the pair at the outset, firing nine winners and fending off Azarenka’s lone break-point opportunity to take the first set in a little over half an hour.
But two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka raised her game in the second set, battling back from a 3-1 deficit to take a 4-3 lead, much to the chagrin of the partisan New York crowd.
A break in the action to close the roof on Arthur Ashe court appeared to bolster Stephens, who tightened up her defence and broke the big-serving Belarusian for a fifth time with a forehand winner to ward off the comeback and go through.
“When things got tough I hung in there,” Stephens, who is the highest remaining seed in the women’s draw, said in an on-court interview. “You guys helped a lot,” she told the crowd.
Serena crushes Venus
The meeting between the famed tennis siblings had been hyped as the biggest night of the US Open but turned into a flat, uninspired spectacle as Serena simply outclassed her sister.
The only moment of suspense in a contest all but devoid of drama came in the second game when Serena rolled over on her ankle, drawing gasps from the sellout crowd.
Serena was able to continue but at the first changeover called a medical timeout and had her ankle heavily strapped.
In the end, though, the only pain being felt was by Venus, who suffered the equal worst defeat in 30 matches against her sister.
"I roll my ankles a lot so I just wanted to get it taped as tight as I could for the rest of the match and see how I feel tomorrow," Serena said in an on-court interview.
"This was my best match since my return. I've worked really hard for it ... and hopefully everything will keep paying off," she added.
Both Venus and Serena accept that as two of the game's very best their will be times they have to play each other but also have made it clear that they find little joy in it.
"It's not easy, she's my best friend, she means the world to me and she's so supportive of my career," Serena said.
Nadal survives Russian threat
Not since 2011 has Nadal lost to a Russian but his string of 16 victories stretching back to 2011 looked ready to end along with his US Open title defence when big-hitting Khachanov came out with guns blazing.
The 27th seed kept up the pressure throughout a four hour, 23 minute thriller that was the Spaniard's longest ever match at Flushing Meadows.
"I am very happy to be through in a very tough situation," Nadal said in an on-court interview.
"There were some tough moments during the match, but he played aggressive. There are things to work on for the next round, but the good thing is I have a chance to improve."
After coasting through his first two matches, Nadal appeared poised for another uneventful day against a 22-year-old he had beaten four times without dropping a set.
That run came to a halt when the Russian took the opener by pounding eight aces past a misfiring Nadal, including one to clinch the set.
No player in tennis, however, is more dangerous than Nadal when threatened and, with Khachanov serving for a 2-0 lead, the 17-times Grand Slam champion's famous survival instincts kicked in and he snatched a clutch break.
Rain began to fall while Nadal celebrated, forcing a delay as the Arthur Ashe stadium's retractable roof was closed and providing the defending champion with an opportunity to regroup.
However, Khachanov, with Nadal serving for the match, dug deep to break the Spaniard yet again and force another tie-break but that was as far as the Russian revolt went with Nadal progressing to a fourth round meeting with Nikoloz Basilashvili.
Del Potro eases past Verdasco
Del Potro, seeded third, has yet to drop a set in New York but was pushed hard by left-handed Verdasco, who has a hard-earned reputation for being one of the trickiest opponents on the tour.
Verdasco lasted two hours and 59 minutes at Arthur Ashe Stadium before he eventually succumbed 7-5 7-6(8) 6-3 as the clock ticked past midnight at Flushing Meadows.
Del Potro sent down 12 aces, 41 winners and won 80 percent of his first serves to reinforce the impression that he is fully fit and well on course to go deep at this year's tournament.