NEW YORK — Yet to be challenged even a tiny bit at this U.S. Open, Serena Williams now gets a sure-to-be-hyped match against one of only three women to beat her all year, Sloane Stephens.
From the moment the women's draw came out at Flushing Meadows, it was clear which potential fourth-rounder was the most intriguing: defending champion Williams against up-and-coming talent Stephens.
"As I always say, I think it will be epic," Stephens said. "I'm really looking forward to it. See what happens."
And that statement came hours before Williams even had advanced out of the third round by beating 78th-ranked Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan 6-3, 6-1.
Much, much earlier, on a ho-hum afternoon devoid of any truly significant surprises, Stephens reached the round of 16 in New York for the first time by beating 23rd-seeded Jamie Hampton 6-1, 6-3 on Friday.
Williams is 32, seeded No. 1, and owns 16 major titles. Stephens is 20, seeded 15th, and already carrying the label of "Next Big Thing" in American tennis. Not only that, but Stephens surprisingly won their Australian Open quarterfinal in January, one of only four losses in 67 matches for Williams in 2013 (Victoria Azarenka beat her twice, and Sabine Lisicki once). Oh, and then there's this: Stephens found herself in a bit of a brouhaha this year over less-than-flattering comments she made to a reporter about Williams.
"That's all old news now, and we've moved on. We're fine, so I think that's all that matters," Stephens said Friday.
Lleyton Hewitt had a stirring 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-1 comeback victory over 2009 winner Juan Martin del Potro, which lasted more than four hours.
It was the ninth time in the last 10 years that two previous title winners faced each other in New York; Hewitt was a participant in three of those in the past, going 0-3.
The 32-year-old Australian, a former No. 1 now ranked 66th after a series of injuries, repeatedly scrambled along the baseline to come up with passing winners against the sixth-seeded del Potro.
Earlier, two other U.S. Open winners, defending champion Andy Murray and top-seeded Novak Djokovic, experienced only brief lulls before staying on course for a possible showdown in the semifinals.
About 40 minutes into his match, Djokovic faced two set points, but he erased those thanks to errors by his opponent, and after adjusting to the swirling wind, wound up defeating 87th-ranked Benjamin Becker 7-6 (2), 6-2, 6-2. Murray dropped a set, yelled at himself after some awkward miscues, but finished well, taking the last five games of his 7-5, 6-1, 3-6, 6-1 victory over 81st-ranked Leonardo Mayer of Argentina.