Serena Williams felt like she was back in the 80s after a marathon victory ahead of next week’s US Open while Novak Djokovic won his first official match in roughly six months to remain undefeated in 2020 despite a neck injury.
The tennis tour has converged on New York as part of the sport’s bubble for the hard-court major during the coronavirus pandemic.
A warmup usually held in Cincinnati is also being staged at the site of the US Open to ensure a safer transition and Williams narrowly escaped against Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands in her opener.
Williams lost her previous match in Lexington, Kentucky last week against wildcard Shelby Rogers in a third-set tiebreak — after defeating older sister Venus — but got past the 72nd-ranked Rus in another third-set tiebreak, 7-6 (6) 3-6 7-6 (0), in scorching conditions.
Williams led 4-1 in the third but was two points away from defeat on Rus’ serve at 6-5. The American stepped it up in the final tiebreak to deprive the left-hander of what would have been a huge moment after heartbreak earlier in her career. Rus lost 17 straight matches from 2012 to 2013.
It was Williams’ longest outing since a 2012 French Open defeat to Virginie Razzano — the lone time the 23-time grand slam winner has exited in the first round of a grand slam — and only the second time in her 20-plus year career she contested back-to-back third-set tiebreaks.
Like next week, no fans are allowed on site, which prompted Williams to reminisce about the 80s’ when few watched her as a junior.
“At one point I was pumping my fist and saying, ‘Come on.’ I had a crowd in my head or something,” Williams, who turns 39 next month, told reporters. “It was actually funny to me. I don’t know. For me, it was like there was a crowd there.
“It feels like I’m back in juniors but at a bigger level in a weird way, because it wasn’t that much … it brings you back to the ’80s,” she later said. “Yeah. Wow, that’s a long time ago.”
Her preparation for what would be a record 24th major continues in Tuesday’s night session against one of the game’s most promising players, 13th seed Maria Sakkari.
Novak Djokovic also plays Tuesday after defeating qualifier Ricardas Berankis.
He wasn’t as close to defeat as Williams but labored to a 7-6 (2) 6-4 win, perhaps not a surprise given the layoff from official matches, his neck issue and testing positive for the coronavirus after his controversial Adria Tour exhibition was cut short.
Djokovic hit eight aces but also seven double faults, which he attributed to the neck problem that forced him out of the doubles event.
“It has bothered me,” the Serb, who next meets Tennys Sandgren, said. “I made so many double faults, and he knew exactly where I’m going to serve. There was not many options for me because just the awkward situation I was in.
“But I managed somehow with the great help of the ATP physiotherapist, who did his best to make sure I feel better. It is what it is. I mean, I tried to take one game at a time.”
He improved to 19-0 this campaign.
Djokovic’s major rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, aren’t competing this week or at the US Open. Federer is recovering from knee surgery and Nadal is skipping the events due to the pandemic.
But the other member of the ‘Big Four,’ Andy Murray, is playing and the Scot — who underwent hip resurfacing surgery last year to save his career — beat Alexander Zverev 6-3 3-6 7-5 for a first top-10 scalp since the 2017 French Open.
Zverev rallied from a break deficit in the third to lead 5-4 but couldn’t serve the match out. The German was undone by yet more double fault issues, hitting five in his final two service games and 11 overall.
Murray gets another big-server next in Milos Raonic, a rematch of the 2016 Wimbledon final won by the former. Raonic, though, only hit five double faults and hammered 23 aces to beat Murray’s fellow Brit Dan Evans 6-3 7-5.
The biggest upset was provided by Djokovic’s good friend, Filip Krajinovic, who thumped second-seed Dominic Thiem 62 61 in an hour. Thiem, who lost to Djokovic in five sets in the Australian Open final, won just two of 34 return points, part of what the Austrian called some “horrible stats.”