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Self-doubt creeps in, but Serena Williams battles through

Self-doubt creeps in, but Serena Williams battles through
Serena Williams reacts during her quarterfinal match against Yulia Putintseva at the French Open on June 2. (Martin Bureau / AFP/Getty Images)

Serena Williams' chest heaved between points. Her footwork wasn't quite right. Miscue followed miscue, until she was a set and a break down in the French Open quarterfinals.

And as she so often does, Williams came through when she needed to Thursday, moving closer to a record-equaling 22nd Grand Slam title by figuring out a way to defeat Yulia Putintseva, 5-7, 6-4, 6-1.

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"I kept missing. Just misfiring. Honestly, at one point I didn't see the light at the end of the tunnel," the defending champion said. "I guess I was not the most positive mentally, but obviously I didn't want to stop."

How close was she to her earliest exit at a major since Wimbledon in 2014? Putintseva, who is from Kazakhstan and ranked 60th, twice was a point from serving for the biggest win of her career.

"I honestly didn't think I was going to win that in the second set," said Williams, who will face another unseeded opponent, 58th-ranked Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, in the semifinals. "Somehow I did."

Yes, somehow, Williams overcame not only a relentless competitor but also her own shakiness on a cloudy, chilly day that included a brief rain delay.

"The rallies were very long and very tough," said Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, who used to work with Putintseva. "She is not used to [this] in matches. Usually after four, five shots, the point is over. She had to work much more today."

And Williams must put in more work Friday against Bertens, who like Putintseva has a tendency to extend points.

There is no rest for the weary at this wet-as-can-be French Open. If Williams gets to Saturday's final, it will be her fourth consecutive day of play. The top-seeded man, Novak Djokovic, already will reach that total — Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday — when he meets No. 13 Dominic Thiem in their semifinal.

"The way that the schedule has been going on in the second week," Djokovic said, "[there] is not much time to really reflect on what you have done."

The other men's semifinal is Andy Murray against defending champion Stan Wawrinka. Their quarterfinals were Wednesday.

Djokovic defeated Tomas Berdych, 6-3, 7-5, 6-3, while Thiem eliminated David Goffin, 4-6, 7-6 (7), 6-4, 6-1.

The most noteworthy moment of Djokovic's victory: Angered by missing a shot, he tried to spike his racket, but it flew out of his right hand and sailed not far from where a line judge stood. Djokovic was issued a warning.

"I was lucky there," Djokovic said.

Williams got so desperate at one point that she shifted her racket to her left hand — and whiffed. At the end of the first set, Williams had made 24 unforced errors to Putintseva's two, which seems like it might be a typo but isn't. Still, Williams reached her 31st major semifinal.

Bertens became the first Dutch woman to get that far at a Slam since 1977, beating Timea Bacsinszky, 7-5, 6-2,

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"Mentally, I feel pretty good. But physically, yeah, it was tough today out there," Bertens said, mentioning a calf problem.

After Williams earned her fourth consecutive major championship at Wimbledon a year ago for No. 21 overall, she was beaten in the semifinals of the U.S. Open by Roberta Vinci and in the final of the Australian Open by Angelique Kerber.

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