NEW YORK — Her yells of “Come on!” filling a stadium devoid of spectators, Serena Williams was pushed to the brink of a stunning loss in her longest match since 2012 before pulling away with a perfect tiebreaker and edging Arantxa Rus 7-6 (6), 3-6, 7-6 (0) Monday at the Western & Southern Open.
“I had a crowd in my head or something,” Williams said with a laugh. “For me, it was like there was a crowd there.”
Rus is a Dutch qualifier ranked No. 72 whose flat, left-handed strokes from the baseline gave Williams some trouble. Williams dropped four games in a row in the second set, then did so again in the third, when she fell behind 6-5.
Rus served for the match there and, at deuce, was two points from victory.
She wouldn’t win another point. A double-fault gave Williams a break chance, and an errant groundstroke sent the match to the concluding tiebreaker.
Showing the strokes and grit that carried her to 23 Grand Slam titles – against an opponent who has never won so much as one tour-level singles title of any sort – Williams ran away with it, ending the 2-hour, 48-minute match with a forehand, celebrating most points with a yell and a clenched left fist.
Williams hadn’t spent that much time on a court since the 2012 French Open, when she lost in the first round to Virginie Razzano in 3 hours, 3 minutes. That was Williams’ only career first-round exit at a Grand Slam tournament.
“I did hit a wall today in the second set, I was so hot. That never happens,” the 38-year-old American said. “So I think physically, I’m fit. Tennis is mental. You know, it’s all mental.”
The Western & Southern Open normally is held in Ohio but was moved to the site of the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The two hard-court tournaments are forming an unusual doubleheader with no fans; the U.S. Open starts Aug. 31.
After losses Sunday by No. 1 seed Karolina Pliskova and No. 2 Sofia Kenin, it appeared No. 3 Williams and No. 4 Naomi Osaka might join them.
But Osaka, who beat Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open final, used 12 aces to get through 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-2 against Karolina Muchova. And Williams moved into the third round thanks in part to 14 aces – one at 121 mph.
Next for Williams is No. 13 Maria Sakkari, a 6-4, 7-6 (9) winner against Yulia Putintseva on Monday after beating 16-year-old Coco Gauff in the first round. Sakkari, who is Greek, figured it might work to her advantage to have a quiet setting, because if there were a crowd of thousands when she plays Serena, it would break down along these lines: “99% with her, 1% with me.”
No. 6 seed Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, did join the list of early exits with a 2-6, 7-5, 6-2 loss to 48th-ranked Marie Bouzkova.
While No. 1 Novak Djokovic was scheduled to play in the evening, and No. 3 seed Daniil Medvedev began the defense of his 2019 Western & Southern Open title with a straight-set victory, another past champion, Andy Murray, moved on 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 with the help of No. 5 Alexander Zverev’s 11 double-faults. That included five in his last two service games.
Reilly Opelka – at 6-foot-11, he’s 16 inches taller than Monday’s opponent — eliminated No. 9 seed Diego Scwartzman 6-3, 7-6 (4), and Tennys Sandgren came back for a 6-7 (4), 6-2, 7-6 (5) victory over No. 15 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, who accumulated 15 double-faults.
No. 16 John Isner hit 35 aces and won 4-6, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5) despite never breaking John Millman’s serve.