Serena Williams of the US hits a return against Arantxa...

Serena Williams of the US hits a return against Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands during their second round match in the Western and Southern Open at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, USA, 24 August 2020. Credit: JASON SZENES/EPA-EFE/Shutterstoc/JASON SZENES/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

This was one long, hot, sweltering slog for Serena Williams on Monday in her opening match of the Western & Southern Open.   After a grueling two hours and 47 minutes, she finally overcame the powerful and spirited game of Arantxa Rus, a qualifier from the Netherlands, to pull out a 7-6 (6), 3-6, 7-6 (0) win on the Grandstand Court at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.  

After such a physically testing match, the 38-year-old Williams professed to be fit and ready to go.

“Physically, I feel I’m incredibly fit,” Williams said. “I did hit a wall today in the second set, it was so hot. That never happens.”  

The W&S is owned by the United States Tennis Association and was moved from its home in Cincinnati to the tennis center as a run-up to the U.S. Open. It’s a combined women’s and men’s event and for Williams it was an opportunity to get her game amped up as she goes for her 24th Grand Slam title at the Open.

 Williams returned to competitive tennis last week at a tournament in Lexington, Kentucky, the first WTA event in the United States since the tour was shut down the first of March by the COVID-19 pandemic.   There, after defeating sister Venus in the second round, she was beaten by Shelby Rogers, the 116th-ranked player in the world. Before these two tournaments, you had to go back to early February when she had last played competitively in a Fed Cup qualifier against Latvia.

At the very start of the year she won her 73rd career title at Auckland and then lost in the third round of the Australian Open to Qiang Wang. 

 With no spectators at this event or the Open, this is a decidedly non-Serena Williams atmosphere.  She and Rus were led from Ashe Stadium to the Grandstand by a single person, not one security guard in sight. The 8,000-plus seat Grandstand is the feature court of this event, and at the start of the play there were 22 people spread around its vastness, including Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.

 Instead of the roars that match her own, Williams was singularly alone when she let out a few emphatic exclamations after winning a point.

Rus, ranked No. 72,  showed up ready to play right out of the gate, pretty much matching Williams with the strength of her ground strokes and winning the longer rallies before finally losing the first set in a tiebreak.

But after Williams broke Rus’ serve to start the second set, she lost her next two service games and Rus closed it out to send the match to a deciding third set. The heat rule was in effect and the players took a 10-minute recess before the start of the third.

After breaking Rus to start the third, Williams lost her next two service games and had to break Rus in the 12th game to send the match to a tiebreaker, which she won rather bizarrely, 7-0, after such a closely contested tussle. All the training she did during the hiatus culminated in a win.

“Before the baby [daughter Olympia born in September of 2017) I was always super fit,” Williams said. “It was one thing that people maybe didn’t recognize about me, but obviously you can’t win a lot of tournaments and Grand Slams without being fit.” 

And she pulled out the win on Monday without thousands of her New York fans ready to lift her up when she was down.

“At one point I was pumping my fist and saying ‘C’mon.’ It was like I had a crowd in my head,” Williams said. “For me it was like there was a crowd there.”   

Murray ousts No. 7-ranked seed Zverev

Andy Murray earned his first Top 10 victory in more than three years at the Western & Southern Open, beating World No. 7 Alexander Zverev 6-3, 3-6, 7-5.  Zverev served for the match at 5-4 in the third set, then Murray rallied to win  three straight games. Since his last top 10 victory against Kei Nishikori in the  2017 French Open, Murray has undergone two right hip surgeries.

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