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NEW YORK -- When Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova broke Serena Williams three times in a row in the opening set of their U.S. Open quarterfinal match on Thursday, the nearly unpronounceable seemed capable of pulling off the nearly unthinkable.
But Williams righted her game in time to save herself from losing that set, then mowed down Pavlyuchenkova from there on, advancing to the semifinals with a convincing 7-5, 6-1 victory at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Serena is now one step closer to securing her 14th career Grand Slam title, and to ultimately reclaiming her place atop women's tennis.
Caroline Wozniacki holds that spot right now as the No. 1 ranked player, but the two will settle that argument Saturday in the semifinals in perhaps the most anticipated match of the women's draw. Wozniacki and Williams have played twice, both in 2009, and Serena took both matches.
Oddly for Williams, who has dominated here, Thursday's quarterfinal wasn't so easy. It was an ugly first set, hardly in keeping with Williams' play here thus far.
"Definitely I think for me it was a slow start," said Williams, who had been forced to practice inside because of two days of rain and had to adjust to playing outside again. "And once I lost serve, I was determined to break serve so I wouldn't be down a break. Then I just kept losing serve in the beginning. Very weird."
Pavlyuchenkova, 20, who upset No. 11 Jelena Jankovic and No. 7 Francesca Schiavone to reach the quarterfinals, said it was much like the match she played with Williams at the French Open in 2010, when Pavlyuchenkova actually took a set before losing. She had broken Williams in the first game in Paris last year, too, which gave her confidence going into this match against the 13-time Grand Slam winner.
"Why should I be nervous playing against Serena [in the] quarterfinal?" Pavlyuchenkova said. "I know that if you're going to be nervous and you have to face Serena, then you probably don't have a lot of chances. So you have to go out there and start playing since the start, since the first point. You have to start doing the right things. You cannot just go and hope that the first few games is going to just help you to handle your nerves."Despite breaking Williams in her first three service games, Pavlyuchenkova had her serve broken three times, too. Yes, there were six service breaks in the first six games of the match. Eventually, Williams found her game and her rhythm. And so did Pavlyuchenkova, who pushed Williams to her most difficult first set of the tournament. They were even at 5-5, the most trouble Williams has seen in any first set here. But after the American held serve, she broke Pavlyuchenkova for a fourth time to take the set. The second set was more typical of Williams' performance at this tournament. She needed just 30 minutes to close out the match, breaking Pavlyuchenkova's serve twice and allowing no break points on her own serve. It was an anticlimactic end, given Pavlyuchenkova's play in the first set. But Williams has not been in dire trouble yet through five matches. And despite Pavlyuchenkova's powerful forehand, Williams wasn't going to let her cause too much trouble, either. Right now, Williams is making it hard to believe anyone can truly threaten her here.