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Defending champs top Sunday servings

By Mark Preston
Sunday, September 06, 2015

A full slate of fourth-round matches is on tap on Day 7 of the 2015 US Open, as defending US Open champions Serena Williams and Marin Cilic each look to advance toward their ultimate goal of once again finishing first in Flushing. Of course, it’s a goal they have in common with every player still standing at this point in the tournament. Among those sharing court time and similar ambitions today are men’s top seed Novak Djokovic and two-time US Open champ Venus Williams, along with Feliciano Lopez, Fabio Fognini, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Madison Keys and Eugenie Bouchard. With a trip to the quarterfinals on the line, expect a rash of remarkable performances inside them. On this seventh day, nobody rests.

Serena Williams, on the cusp of making a statement of historic proportion, stammered slightly in her third-round win over countrywoman Bethanie Mattek-Sands, dropping the first set before roaring back for a three-set win. Though that first-set hiccup had everyone on Serena watch holding their collective breath, it was, in truth, not an altogether unusual occurrence for the woman in hot pursuit of completing the Grand Slam. Twice in Australia, four times at the French, and once at Wimbledon, Williams surrendered the first set before pulling off a three-set win. It’s a fact that’s not only testament to Williams’ competitive toughness, but also of the incredible difficulty of going four-for-four at the majors.

The top seed figures to get another serious test Sunday against another of her countrywomen, who just also happens to be a serious talent – 20-year-old Madison Keys. Keys, one of a host of young American women making an impressive impact on the sport, knocked out Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams en route to the Australian Open semis in January. With a keen court sense and an explosive arsenal of shots, the No. 19 seed is one of the very few players who can hold her own against the power of the game’s top player. This is the deepest Keys ever has been at the US Open; she’d never before been past the second round here in three previous tries. Now she’s played her way into the fourth round without dropping a set. The two have met just once, with Williams winning in the Aussie Open semis on her way to the first major step in what looms as a major accomplishment. This should be a great one, the sort of heavyweight slugfest that usually has ropes around it. In a thrilling three, Williams takes another step toward history.

In the shadow of spotlight focused upon her younger sister, Venus Williams has made a quiet advance to the fourth round here for the first time since 2010. Williams, now 35, won back-to-back titles here in 2000 and 2001, and though she’s the oldest player in the women’s draw, the seven-time Grand Slam singles champ looked very much like her old self in dismantling No. 12 seed Belinda Bencic in the third round. In that match, Williams won 83 percent of her first-serve points and nailed 31 winners against just 15 unforced errors. With the win, the No. 23 seed sent the message that she still can be very much of a force when she’s on her game.

On Friday, she looks to deliver a similar message to qualifier Anett Kontaveit, a 19-year-old Estonian playing in her first career US Open main draw. Kontaveit was 2 years old when Williams made her US Open debut in 1997, but she’s demonstrated a mature game to this point in posting her best career Slam showing. Ranked No. 152, Kontaveit needed to win three qualifying matches just to get to the main draw, and once here, she’s simply refused to lose. It’ll get tougher for her to stay that stubborn against Williams, who’s looking to reach her second major quarterfinal of the year, having advanced to the quarters in Australia in January. There’s an eagerly anticipated quarterfinal waiting just ahead, which would bring the Williams sisters together for the 27th time in their respectively brilliant careers. It’s hard to fathom that the qualifier is qualified to prevent that. In two, Williams advances.

Men’s top seed Djokovic, the 2011 US Open champion, has blazed his way into the fourth round here without the loss of a set. The world No. 1 was pushed – if only slightly – in the third round by Andreas Seppi, posting an uncharacteristic 31 unforced errors. But even in a less-than-perfect outing, Djokovic never looked threatened, playing with an obvious ease that suggests it’ll be a tall order to prevent him from capturing his third Slam singles crown of the year. Champion in Australia and at Wimbledon this year, Djokovic fell just one match short at Roland Garros, losing the final in four after winning the first set.

Djokovic, a nine-time Grand Slam singles titlist, and a five-time US Open finalist, has reached at least the quarterfinals in 25 consecutive majors. Standing in the way of No. 26 is Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut, who is into the fourth round here for the second consecutive year. Ranked No. 23, the 27-year-old Bautista Agut is one of eight Spaniards in the game’s Top 50, but he’s 0-6 lifetime against Top 10 opponents. The Spaniard is a good one, but Djokovic is a great one. In three, Djokovic is on to the quarters – again.

Fans are still talking about the performance of No. 32 seed Fabio Fognini on Friday night, rallying back from two sets and 1-3 down to oust two-time US Open champ Rafael Nadal. To watch the Italian’s relentlessly aggressive game, remarkable movement and incredible shot-making, it’s hard to fathom that this fourth-round appearance is his best-ever at the US Open. Prior to this, he’d only been as far as the third round here once in seven tries. The 25-year-old’s best career Slam showing was a run to the quarters of Roland Garros in 2011. He has a very real chance of getting to that point again here, taking on No. 18 seed Felciano Lopez, who’s into the fourth round here for the third time in his career. Lopez, who reached a career-high ranking of No. 12 earlier this year, is now ranked No. 19, third-best among his countrymen, trailing only David Ferrer and Nadal among the imposing Spanish armada. Lopez advanced with an impressive straight-sets upset of the No. 10 seed Milos Raonic, and also is responsible for sending American Mardy Fish into retirement with a memorable five-set win in round two.

This figures as a high-caliber duel between two particularly well-armed combatants. This is the first meeting between the two, and it will be particularly interesting to see whether Fognini can convert a career win into a career run. This goes five; Fognini goes on.