NEW YORK, September 5 – Wins for Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters on Friday set up a mouth-watering US Open fourth-round clash between the two former champions.
Third seed Williams, a back-to-back winner here in 2000 and 2001, defied a sore left knee to defeat Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia 6-2, 7-5.
Unseeded Clijsters, the 2005 champion who is on the comeback trail after two years out of the sport during which she married and had a baby daughter, blasted past Belgian compatriot Kirsten Flipkens 6-0, 6-2.
Defending champion and tournament favourite Serena Williams also made it into the last 16 from the bottom half of the draw, beating Spain’s Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez 6-3, 7-5.
That put her into a fourth-round showdown with Slovakian Grand Slam regular Daniela Hantuchova, who eased past Vania King of the United States 6-2, 6-2.
It was a good day for Italy as in-form Flavia Pennetta swept aside Canada’s Aleksandra Wozniak 6-1, 6-1 and Francesca Schiavone upset eighth seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
Russian seventh seed Vera Zvonareva saw off compatriot Elena Vesnina 6-2, 6-4 in 85 minutes while Li Na kept Asian hopes alive with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Maria Kirilenko of Russia.
Venus Williams showed glimpses of her best form against Rybarikova, especially in the first set, but she struggled at times on her serve and needed to battle back from a break down in the second to go through.
She leads Clijsters 6-4 in career meetings, but lost in three sets to her the last time they played in the quarter-finals of the 2005 Open, which Clijsters went on to win for her only Grand Slam title before she walked away from the sport in May, 2007.
Her return to competition could only be good for women’s tennis, the 29-year-old American said, but she insisted there would be no room for sentiment when they play each other.
"She’s been playing really well and I’ve been playing really well. Obviously it’s great to see her back, but I want to advance to the next round," she said.
The 26-year-old Clijsters, playing in just her third tournament since her return, showed all her old shot-making skills and superb movement about the court as she outplayed Flipkens.
But Williams will represent her biggest challenge yet in her second coming and she expects a tough battle.
"I think she’s been a little bit up and down in her matches, but I think overall when she has to bring it she’s been able to bring it," Clijsters said.
"That’s what they both have been really good at. They can really lift their level when they’re struggling."
The Williams-Martinez Sanchez match had an undertone of friction as the two had clashed during a third-round match at the French Open when Williams accused her opponent of cheating by refusing to admit that a ball had hit her arm.
The American eventually won that match in three sets, but she was outspoken in her criticism of Martinez Sanchez afterwards.
This time around, 27-year-old Williams let her tennis do the talking although she was made to work hard in the second set as the Spaniard decided that if she was to seek salvation it would only come at the net.
"She was serving really well, especially in the second set, but I just kept on fighting," she said.
"It’s not often that I play someone that serves and volleys like that. Playing doubles here helped with that.
"I got super-pumped when 1-3 down in the second set as I knew I had to recharge my batteries."
Pennetta underlined her challenge with another rapid-fire win.
The 27-year-old 10th seed demolished Canada’s Aleksandra Wozniak 6-1, 6-1 and she has lost just four games in three rounds.
She defeated Romania’s Edina Gallovits 6-0, 6-4 in the first round and then whitewashed India’s Sania Mirza 6-0, 6-0 in the second round.
Asked what had inspired her rich vein of form over the last few weeks, Pennetta replied: "I started to have more confidence and everything has come around.
"Tennis, it’s a very strange sport, because for one point everything can change. You have to be very mentally focused at all moments."
Pennetta will next play Zvonereva for a place in the quarter-finals, where she could run into tournament favourite Serena Williams.
The veteran Schiavone took full advantage of Azarenka’s fickleness to bounce back from losing the first set and by the end, despite a painful thigh strain, she was in control of the match as the east European crumbled.