Serena Williams puts aside shaky start to beat Karolina Pliskova at U.S. Open

Serena Williams returns a shot to Karolina Pliskova during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, in New York. (Jason DeCrow / Associated Press)

NEW YORK – Serena Williams began her U.S. Open quarterfinal tentatively. Her shots lacked their usual sting, her attitude its usual conviction.

She was facing the last player she lost to at Flushing Meadows, and perhaps that was the problem. After just 20 minutes Tuesday night, Williams was in danger of trailing by two service breaks. Not much later, the outcome was no longer in doubt, because the 23-time Grand Slam champion suddenly was in complete control.

Williams put aside some early shakiness and an early deficit, turning things around with an eight-game run en route to a 6-4, 6-3 victory over No. 8 seed Karolina Pliskova for a spot in the semifinals.

Pliskova is a big server and hitter in her own right, someone who briefly spent time at No. 1 in the WTA rankings and was the runner-up at the U.S. Open in 2016, when she beat Williams in the semifinals. The 36-year-old American did not compete in New York a year ago, because she gave birth to her daughter during the tournament.

This time, Williams’ semifinal opponent will be No. 19 seed Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, who surprisingly beat defending champion Sloane Stephens 6-2, 6-3 earlier Tuesday.

Stephens, who said she had been dealing with a sinus infection, rued all of her wasted opportunities, most notably the seven break points she failed to convert in the first set. She sure didn’t attempt to hide her frustration, either, repeatedly gesturing toward or speaking in the direction of her coach, Kamau Murray, up in the stands.

When someone urged her to raise her level in the second set, Stephens replied, “I’m trying!”

“When you don’t play big points well, the match can get away from you,” Stephens said. “I think that’s what happened today. I didn’t convert.”

Sevastova, who retired in 2013 because of injuries and returned nearly two years later, advanced to her first Slam semifinal.

“Still long way to go, I think,” she said.

Especially considering that the next step will come against Williams, who’s heading into her 36th semi at a major.

It did take Williams a little while to get going as she pursues a seventh U.S. Open title. Consider this: 22 of her 30 unforced errors came in the first set against Pliskova.

That sluggish start came in the heat and humidity that hampered John Isner in his quarterfinal loss to Juan Martin del Potro on Tuesday afternoon, and Roger Federer in his fourth-round exit against John Millman a night earlier.

del Potro of Argentina beat John Isner to make a second straight U.S. Open semifinal, and extend the Americans’ drought at their host tournament.

The 2009 champion won 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 and will face top-ranked Rafael Nadal or No. 9 Dominic Thiem in the semifinals after Nadal beat No. 9 Dominic Thiem 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7(4), 7-6(5) in a nearly five-hour match. Nadal beat del Potro last year in the semifinals at Flushing Meadows, and again this year in the semifinals of the French Open.

Isner was trying to become the first American man to reach the U.S. Open semifinals since Andy Roddick in 2006.

With her older sister, Venus – the woman she beat in the third round – in her guest box, Williams looked tight. Her timing was off. She put a backhand into the net to get broken to 2-1 at the outset. Then, down 3-1, she faced three break points; if Pliskova won any, she would have led 4-1. But Pliskova did not manage to put any of Williams’ serves in play on those key points.

Soon after that, Williams went from trailing 4-2 to not only taking the first set but also leading 4-0 in the second.

By the end, Williams compiled a 13-3 edge in aces, and 35-12 in total winners.