Serena Williams, right, shakes hands with Belarus' Victoria Azarenka, the No. 4 seed at the U.S. Open, on Saturday after whipping her in straight sets.
NEW YORK -- If anyone still harbored any doubts about whether Serena Williams is back at her best, she put on a pretty persuasive performance during the first 17 minutes of her third-round match Saturday at the U.S. Open.
That's how long Williams needed to build a 5-0 lead en route to a 6-1, 7-6 (5) victory at Flushing Meadows over one of the best players the women's field had to offer: fourth-seeded Victoria Azarenka, a Wimbledon semifinalist two months ago.
Listen to Azarenka describe how it felt to stand across the net from Williams during her superb start:
"What's it like? It's painful," said Azarenka, who won eight points in those opening five games. "To have somebody just going at you like that, it's a little bit painful."
Eventually, though, Azarenka straightened her own play out enough to make things interesting in the second set. She erased four match points, broke when Williams served for the match at 5-3, and left Williams saying she wasn't pleased.
"She won the first set very easily, and it was a little bit too easy, so then she got tested -- and she needed to be tested," said Williams' mother, Oracene Price.
Williams passed the test, and showed off her fitness, which is much improved from when she lost in the fourth round at Wimbledon. At the end of one point, she did the splits. On another, she raced all the way over to the blue sign near the stands to smack a forehand winner.
She and Azarenka described the level of play as being worthy of a Grand Slam semifinal, rather than the Week 1 matchup that it was. But they wound up being drawn to meet this early because Williams is seeded only 28th, a reflection of her lower-than-usual ranking as a result of nearly a year's absence from the tour because of a series of health scares.
The 29-year-old American already owns 13 major championships, including three at the U.S. Open, which is why, when she was asked how she can play so well now, Williams replied: "I mean, I was a pretty good player before. So just trying to get back into that rhythm and feel it again."
In the fourth round, Williams will face former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic of Serbia, the 2008 French Open champion, who is seeded 16th.
"It's exciting, at least for me. I think she's the hottest player out there at the moment. She's been playing so well lately. It is going to be a good challenge," Ivanovic said after ending Sloane Stephens' surprising run by beating the 18-year-old American 6-3, 6-4 in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday night.
Ivanovic acknowledged that Williams will be the "favorite, that's for sure" but also said: "I know I can give her a tough match. She beat me in the past, but maybe I can go for revenge on Monday."
Her match against Stephens was followed by top-seeded Novak Djokovic's 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 victory over 39th-ranked Nikolay Davydenko, a two-time semifinalist at the U.S. Open. After improving to 60-2 in 2011, Djokovic delighted the crowd by showing off some dance moves on court while music blared over the stadium loudspeakers.
"I know most people expect top players to get to the late stages of the tournament, so there's extra pressure on us," said Djokovic, seeking his first title at Flushing Meadows after runner-up finishes in 2007 and 2010. "But it's a challenge we're ready to accept. This is what we work all our lives for, to be on this court."
At the start of the day, the woman who's seeded No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki, took to that same court and eliminated Vania King of the United States 6-2, 6-4. Wozniacki will continue her bid for a first Grand Slam title against 15th-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova, owner of two major trophies.
Also into the fourth round with victories Saturday were 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy, who got past Chanelle Scheepers of South Africa 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-3; No. 17 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, who beat 2008 U.S. Open runner-up Jelena Jankovic of Serbia 6-4, 6-4; and No. 10 Andrea Petkovic of Germany, who defeated No. 18 Roberta Vinci of Italy 6-4, 6-0 to reach the fourth round at Flushing Meadows for the second year in a row.
"Grand Slams are very stressful," Petkovic observed. "I think any player that you ask -- and if he answers honestly -- it's a lot of stress."
That, as much as anything, could explain why so many players have been quitting during matches because of injury or illness: No. 9 Tomas Berdych (shoulder) and No. 31 Marcel Granollers (abdominal muscle) did so Saturday, raising the total retirements in men's and women's singles to a record 14 by the third round.
Never before had more than 12 players stopped during a match throughout the course of any entire Grand Slam tournament in the Open era.
"For me, it is shocking to see so many retirements. I have never retired in my whole life, except once when I played against (James) Blake in Paris, but I didn't even walk onto the court. For me it doesn't matter how bad I'm feeling, I will be out there and giving it a try, because you never know what's gonna happen," 16-time major champion Roger Federer said.
"Look, every player feels different," he added. "It's unfortunate it happens."
Federer moved into the fourth round for the 30th consecutive Grand Slam tournament by overcoming what he called "tricky wind" and a second-set blip to defeat No. 27 Marin Cilic of Croatia 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
The 6-foot-6 Cilic caused some problems with his wingspan, and when he hit a big forehand that Federer couldn't get back, they were tied at a set apiece.
In the third, with Cilic facing a break point while serving at 4-all, he was warned by the chair umpire for a time violation. Cilic promptly double-faulted, handing Federer a 5-4 lead and momentum.
"Did he double-fault because of the time violation? Maybe. I don't think so," Federer said. "It came a bit out of nowhere."
He's won at least one Grand Slam title each of the past eight seasons, but that streak is in danger of ending in 2011. Next up as he pursues a sixth trophy at the U.S. Open is a fourth-round match against 36th-ranked Juan Monaco of Argentina, who beat Federer's pal, Tommy Haas, 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.
Also advancing Saturday were No. 8 Mardy Fish, the top-seeded American, who has yet to drop a set after beating Kevin Anderson of South Africa 6-4, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3); No. 20 Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia; No. 22 Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine; and 2003 French Open champion and U.S. Open runner-up Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain. Tipsarevic (Berdych's opponent) and Ferrero (Granollers') play each other next.
On Monday, Fish faces a potentially difficult match against No. 11 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- the 2008 Australian Open runner-up who beat No. 19 Fernando Verdasco 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 -- and so was pleased to finish off Anderson in three sets.
"I'll be physically fine in two days," Fish said. "But, you know, I'm 29. I don't wake up in the morning feeling like I'm 20."