• AFP-Jiji, AP

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Serena Williams continued her hunt for a record seventh U.S. Open title with a straight-sets win on Thursday as Andy Murray crashed out in the second round at Flushing Meadows.

Williams, the tournament’s third seed, dispatched unseeded Russian Margarita Gasparyan 6-2, 6-4 under the roof of a near-empty Arthur Ashe Stadium on a wet New York evening.

The 38-year-old closed out the first set with ease before a slight wobble in the second when she was broken twice by Gasparyan, before progressing into the third round.

“I’m just happy to get through it and try to focus on the next round,” said Williams, who will take on 2017 champion Sloane Stephens in the last 32.

Williams is seeking a record-matching 24th Grand Slam singles title at a subdued, spectator-free Billie Jean King U.S. National Tennis Center.

A tournament victory next week would also see her break away from Chris Evert’s six titles as the most decorated U.S. Open champion of the women’s game in the modern era.

Williams’ chances have been improved by the absence of several top players, included top-ranked Ash Barty and Simona Halep, over coronavirus fears or injuries.

She was handed a further boost on Wednesday when top seed Karolina Pliskova tumbled out of the tournament.

The Czech was stunned in straight sets by France’s world No. 50 Caroline Garcia.

Williams’ American compatriot Sofia Kenin, the No. 2 seed, continued her impressive form this year with a straightforward 6-4, 6-3 victory over Canadian Leylah Fernandez to progress into the third round.

Reigning Australian Open champion Kenin is yet to drop a set at Flushing Meadows as she bids for her second Grand Slam title of the year, and of her career.

“I feel like I found a groove. I’m really focused on every shot,” said the Moscow-born player who will take on 27th-seeded Ons Jabeur of Tunisia in the next round.

In the men’s draw, Andy Murray slumped to a 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 defeat against a dominant Felix Auger-Aliassime.

The 15th-seeded Auger-Aliassime dominated throughout, compiling a 52-9 edge in total winners, including 24 aces, and taking 41 of the 46 points when he put his first serve in play.

“I just felt like everything was coming in, my toss, my rhythm. Everything was going well through the whole match,” said Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Perhaps even more notably, Auger-Aliassime never faced so much as a single break point against Murray, one of the game’s great returners.

This was just too much to ask of Murray, a 33-year-old with a metal hip who two days earlier toiled for 4 hours, 39 minutes while building his 10th career comeback from two sets down to beat Yoshihito Nishioka 4-6, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-4.

“I need to build up my body and my conditioning,” Murray said.

Auger-Aliassime sat in his player suite for part of that match and was aware Thursday he shouldn’t feel too confident despite holding a big lead.

“In the back of your mind, you know you’re facing Andy Murray,” Auger-Aliassime said. “You never know what tricks he’s got in his pocket.”

In early men’s matches, second seed Dominic Thiem celebrated his 27th birthday with an easy straight-sets win against India’s Sumit Nagal.

The Austrian triumphed 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 against Nagal, who became the first Indian man since 2013 to reach the second round of a Grand Slam.

Thiem will play 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic for a place in the fourth round after the Croatian advanced in four sets against Slovakia’s Norbert Gombos.

“He’s one of the big champions of the last decade, Thiem said of Cilic.

“It’s not a guy I want to face in the third round.”

Third seed and beaten finalist last year Daniil Medvedev made light work of Australia’s 116th-ranked Christoper O’Connell, easing into round three 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.

Elsewhere, sixth seed Italian Matteo Berrettini brushed aside France’s Ugo Humbert 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (8-6) while Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut progressed against Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic.

In the women’s competition on Thursday, Tsvetana Pironkova, returning after a lengthy time away from the game following the birth of her son, advanced at the expense of Garbine Muguruza.

The unseeded Bulgarian knocked out the 10th Spaniard 7-5, 6-3 in 1 hour and 21 minutes.

“Coming from three year of absence on the tour, you always have your doubts. Right now my results actually make me really happy because it shows that I did the right things preparing for this comeback,” said Pironkova.

Seventh-seeded Madison Keys of the United States also progressed, making light work of Spain’s Aliona Bolsova 6-2, 6-1, while Stephens easily overcame Belarusian Olga Govortsova 6-2, 6-2.

British No. 9 seed Jo Konta became another high-ranking woman to be sent packing, losing in three sets to Romania’s Sorana Cirstea after going a set ahead.

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