Her yells of “Come on!” filling a stadium devoid of spectators, Serena Williams was pushed to the brink of defeat before advancing to the next round of the Western & Southern Open.
The former world No.1 was involved in her longest match since 2012 before pulling away with a perfect tiebreaker to beat Arantxa Rus 7-6 (8-6) 3-6 7-6 (7-0) on Monday.
AS the US continues to grapple with the highest number of coronavirus cases worldwide, Williams, 38, told reporters covering the tournament in a Zoom chat on Friday she was choosing to rental a private house rather than staying with other players in a hub or hotel complex.
“I want to be here, but I have genuine health issues,” she said ahead of the Western & Southern Open, which begins in earnest on Saturday.
The tournament is a prelude to the US Open which begins on August 31.
“I didn’t want to be in the [official player] hotel because I have lung issues and felt it was a big risk for me personally,” she said.
“In a house, I can control more, there’s no housekeeping [staff], none of that stuff. I needed to put my mind at rest so that I could perform in New York.”
Novak Djokovic also decided to rent a house in the New York suburbs rather than going into a coronavirus-secure hotel for the US Open.
“With the trees and serenity, being in this kind of environment is a blessing,” Djokovic told the New York Times ahead of the event which began on Saturday.
“I have to think about myself and my health and my fitness and whether my team is OK to be here.
“And I’m grateful, because I’ve seen the hotel where the majority of players are staying. I don’t want to sound arrogant… but it’s tough for most of the players, not being able to open their window and being in a hotel in a small room.”
Williams runs away with match
Rus is a Dutch qualifier ranked No. 72 whose flat, left-handed strokes from the baseline gave Williams some trouble. No.3 seed 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 in that game, 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 two-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 three hours and three minutes. That was Williams’ only career first-round exit at a grand slam tournament – and so perhaps she’d rather forget it.
“I’m trying to think of the last time I played a three-hour match,” Williams said in a post-match TV interview.
“That was tough. It was a real physical match out there,” she said about facing Rus. “She just kept fighting.”
After losses Sunday by No. 1 seed Karolina Pliskova and No. 2 Sofia Kenin, it appeared Williams might join them on the way out.
But thanks in part to 14 aces, Williams moved into a third-round match against No. 13 Maria Sakkari, a 6-4 7-6 (11-9) winner against Yulia Putintseva after beating 16-year-old American Coco Gauff in the first round.
Naomi Osaka was also put to the test by talented Czech Karolina Muchova but managed to come through 6-7 (7-5) 6-4 6-2 in what was the Japanese star’s first tournament appearance (besides the Fed Cup) since the Australian Open last January.