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.
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 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 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 — 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 postmatch TV interview.
“That was tough. It was a real physical match out there,” she said about facing Rus. “She just kept fighting.”
The 38-year-old American is seeded third at the Western & Southern Open, which 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.
But thanks in part to 14 aces — one at 121 mph — Williams moved into a third-round match against No. 13 Maria Sakkari, a 6-4, 7-6 (9) winner against Yulia Putintseva on Monday after beating 16-year-old American Coco Gauff in the first round.
No. 8 Johanna Konta defeated Kirsten Flipkens 6-2, 6-0, No. 14 Elise Mertens got past Kristina Mladenovic 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-3 and qualifier Jessica Pegula beat 18-year-old Amanda Anisimova 7-5, 6-2 in an all-American matchup.
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, two American men knocked off seeded opponents.
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.