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By Julien Pretot
PARIS, June 4 (Reuters) - For a very brief instant on Tuesday, Serena Williams thought she would exit the French Open in the quarter-finals yet again but she quickly banished the notion to go past Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-1 3-6 6-3.
The world number one, the first American woman in the last four on the Paris clay since Jennifer Capriati in 2004, came back from the brink and extended her winning streak to 29 matches to continue her run towards a second French Open title.
The last four times 2002 champion Williams had reached the last eight at Roland Garros, she had been sent packing, in 2004, 2007, 2009 and 2010.
Williams, who will face Italian Sara Errani in the semi-finals, would have been lying if she had said she had not thought about her recent record on the Paris clay when she was 2-0 down in the third set against Kuznetsova.
“That was just a brief, brief, brief, like fleeting thought,” Williams, who was knocked out at this stage by Kuznetsova four years ago when the Russian went on to lift the Suzanne Lenglen Cup, told a news conference.
“And after that it was just, let’s just play this match and let’s just do the best that I can. Even though I was down I was still competing, so I couldn’t necessarily dwell on the fact that I’ve lost so many quarter-final matches here.”
Williams, who has won 15 grand slam titles but only one at Roland Garros, saw off three double break points in the decider and played some beautiful tennis to set up a meeting with fifth seed Errani, who beat Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska 6-4 7-6(6).
After strolling through her first four rounds and the opening set, Williams came up against a streak of forehand winners from Kuznetsova.
The American fell 2-0 behind in the third before winning five games in a row, wrapping up victory with a forehand volley after nearly two hours of a see-saw contest.
“When I was serving at 0-2, I thought ‘Can’t go out like this again’,” Williams said.
Kuznetsova huffed and puffed and looked in agony while Williams whizzed into a one-set lead in less than half an hour.
The Russian, unseeded in Paris for the first time since 2003 after a free fall in the rankings following a six-month knee-injury layoff, talked to herself and looked up to the sky.
She took a break to be treated off court by the trainer and everything changed.
“I taped my stomach stronger than I had before because it was killing me and I couldn’t serve,” Kuznetsova, who has been suffering from an abdominal strain in Paris, told a news conference.
The string of forehand unforced errors suddenly turned into a series of forehand winners that more than once left Williams helpless.
The American conceded the first of three breaks of serve when she sent a backhand long, losing her range just as world number 39 Kuznetsova’s shots started to land on the right side of the line.
One of eight forehand winners in the set gave Kuznetsova a 4-0 lead as the wind picked up on Court Suzanne Lenglen.
Williams held only once, for 5-3, and she threatened to break in the ninth game, only for Kuznetsova to see off two break points with a second-serve ace and a finely-drilled forehand winner.
The Russian levelled the tie when the American failed to retrieve a cunning drop shot.
She quickly opened a 2-0 lead in the third set but Williams refused to let Kuznetsova drive the final nail into the coffin.
“Today I was so determined to get through that, and I really, really, really, really wanted it more than I think anyone,” said Williams.
She saved three break points, won the game and never looked back.
“I did put her to the limit I think today, even without my serve,” said Kuznetsova. “I was there, I was running as much as I could.” (Editing by Clare Fallon and Sonia Oxley)