New York, Aug 24 (efe-epa).- Third-seeded American Serena Williams got a stern test Monday in her opening match at the Western & Southern Open, rallying from a third-set deficit to pull out a narrow 7-6 (8-6), 3-6, 7-6 (7-0) victory over Dutch qualifier Arantxa Rus.
The behind-closed-doors contest on the hard courts of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in the New York City borough of Queens was a battle between the potent serving of the 23-time Grand Slam champion and the superior ground strokes of the 72nd-ranked Rus, who played at a level that belied her ranking.
Both players dominated their service games in the first set, which came down to a pivotal and closely contested tiebreaker.
Rus served with a 5-4 lead in that decider but lost her mini-break advantage when Williams showed her own baseline prowess by finally forcing an error after a nearly 20-ball rally.
The Dutchwoman then had a set point two points later on Williams’ serve, but the American staved it off when she backed up a well-placed serve with a forehand winner.
The all-time great eventually clinched the first set on her first opportunity by forcing an error with another hard-hit forehand, letting out a scream afterward that showed how badly she wanted the victory.
Williams carried that momentum into the start of the second set and grabbed an early service break, but it didn’t last. Instead, Rus started firing on all cylinders with her ground strokes and forced a decider with a backhand cross-court winner on set point.
In the third and deciding set, Williams appeared to be in total control after rallying from a 0-40 hole to capture her opening service game and then grabbing a 5-2 lead.
But Rus took advantage of a drop in the level of an apparently fatigued Williams to win the next four games, breaking her opponent for a 6-5 lead with a forehand down-the-line winner.
The Dutchwoman then was two points away from the victory in the ensuing game, but the 38-year-old American fought back and forced a final tiebreaker when a Rus forehand sailed wide of the sideline.
Everything was in place for a dramatic finish to the match, but Williams did not concede a single point in the tiebreaker and capped off the victory with one final forehand winner.
Williams, who is playing her second tournament after the long coronavirus hiatus, exuded optimism about her chances at the US Open after Monday’s victory on the National Tennis Center’s Grandstand court.
“Now I feel like I have passed that test, and now I can pass the test at the (US) Open, playing (Arthur) Ashe Stadium,” Williams, who would tie the all-time record for Grand Slam women’s singles titles (Margaret Court – 24) if she wins her seventh title in New York, was quoted as saying by the WTA’s website.
She also allayed any concerns her fans may have about her level of fitness and talked about how she was able to motivate herself with no fans in the stadium.
“Physically I feel like I’m incredibly fit. I did hit a wall today in the second set. I was so hot. That never happens,” she said. “At one point I was pumping my fist and saying, ‘Come on!’ I had a crowd in my head or something! It was actually funny to me. I don’t know. For me, it was like there was a crowd there.”
Next up for Williams in a Tuesday evening round-of-16 match will be Greece’s Maria Sakkari, who defeated Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva 6-4, 7-6 (11-9) on Monday.
In men’s action on Monday afternoon, 2019 US Open runner-up and No. 3 seed Daniil Medvedev defeated American qualifier Marcos Giron 6-4, 6-4 and Scottish former world No. 1 Andy Murray edged seventh-ranked Alexander Zverev 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 to record his first top-10 victory since returning to the ATP Tour last year following a second – and highly successful – hip surgery.
The Western & Southern Open is normally played just outside Cincinnati, Ohio, but in order to reduce unnecessary travel amid the coronavirus pandemic it is being held this year at the same venue as the US Open, a hard-court Grand Slam event that gets under way on Aug. 31. EFE-EPA