Howard Fendrich, ASSOCIATED PRESS
PARIS (AP) — For the third match in a row at the French Open, Serena Williams was oddly out of sorts at the start and dropped the opening set.
And for the third match in a row, almost as though this was the plan all along, Williams righted herself to pull out a victory.
In a riveting showdown between the last two American women in the draw, the No. 1-ranked and No. 1-seeded Williams came back to edge Sloane Stephens 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 and reach the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, managing to avoid joining Maria Sharapova on the way out of the tournament Monday.
“Not simple for me today. I’m surprised to win,” Williams told the crowd in French. “Experience helped me.”
Close as it was, thanks in large part to Williams’ 43 unforced errors, more than twice as many as Stephens’ 21, the eventual outcome seemed certain once Williams pulled even by taking the second set.
That’s because Williams is 10-0 in three-setters this season.
She is 29-1 overall in 2015 and owns an 18-match Grand Slam winning streak, including championships at the U.S. Open last September and Australian Open in January, raising her total to 19 major singles trophies. Only two tennis players won more: Margaret Smith Court (24) and Steffi Graf (22).
Either Williams, in 2013, or Sharapova, in 2012 and 2014, has won the French Open the past three years. Only Williams has a chance to do it again on Saturday, because the second-seeded Sharapova was outplayed throughout a 7-6 (3), 6-4 loss to 13th-seeded Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic earlier Monday.
Coughing between points on an overcast day, Sharapova was unable to dictate play against Safarova, who finished with a 34-20 edge in winners.
“My opponent had a different gear than I did,” Sharapova said.
This was her earliest exit at Roland Garros since 2010, when she was beaten in the third round.
Sharapova did not use the cold she’s been dealing with as an excuse, saying: “I don’t like to talk about it, and I don’t think it really makes a difference. I’m still a competitor, no matter what.”
In her first French Open quarterfinal, Safarova will face No. 21 Garbine Muguruza of Spain, who beat No. 28 Flavia Pennetta of Italy 6-3, 6-4.
Sharapova-Safarova and Muguruza-Pennetta were originally supposed to be played Sunday, but were postponed after a rain delay that afternoon.
They instead became part of a Monday full of tennis’ biggest names, with Williams, Sharapova and the Big 4 of the men’s game — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — all on the schedule.
Federer, whose record 17 Grand Slam titles include the 2009 French Open, needed only about an hour to finish off his 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory over 13th-seeded Gael Monfils of France in a match that was suspended because of darkness after the second set Sunday night.
In truth, this one might have been over after the very first game when they resumed: Monfils led 40-love, then tried to showboat a little and got broken. Federer broke to open the fourth set, too, en route to his 11th Roland Garros quarterfinal, where he’ll play Swiss Davis Cup teammate Stan Wawrinka.
In another quarterfinal, two-time major champion Murray will face 2013 runner-up David Ferrer. Murray stretched his post-wedding winning streak to 14 matches, all on clay, by beating Jeremy Chardy of France 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, while Ferrer’s 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 victory over U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic was most noteworthy for this statistic: Cilic was broken once in 40 service games until Monday, when he was broken five times.
Williams’ quarterfinal opponent will be No. 17 Sara Errani, a 6-2, 6-2 winner over Julia Goerges.
Errani lost the French Open final in 2012, when Sharapova completed her career Grand Slam. Years ago, Sharapova famously described herself as a “cow on ice” when playing on red clay, troubled by the tricky footing. She overcame that well enough to win 65 of her last 71 matches on the surface entering Monday, including appearing in three consecutive finals in Paris.
“Maria,” Safarova said, “is an amazing player.”
But Safarova was better on this day.