NEW YORK, NY, USA - Two-time Western & Southern Open champion Serena Williams made a winning return on Monday, overcoming Dutch qualifier Arantxa Rus, 7-6(6), 3-6, 7-6(0) reach the Round of 16.
"Now I feel like I have passed that test, and now I can pass the test at the Open, playing Ashe Stadium," Serena said in her post-match press conference.
"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."
Williams, who last played the Western & Southern Open in 2018, saved a set point in the first set tie-break and dropped the second before ultimately advancing after a thrilling two hours and 48 minutes on Grandstand court - her longest match since her first round defeat to Virginie Razzano at the 2012 French Open.
"It's a different atmosphere," she said of playing the Western & Southern Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, typically the home of the US Open. "It's different. I don't know. It feels like I'm back in, like, juniors but at a bigger level in a weird way, because it brings you back to the '80s. Yeah. Wow, that's a long time ago."
The 23-time Grand Slam champion was playing Rus for the second time in their career, with Williams winning in straight sets at the Wimbledon Championships 26 months ago. While the No.3 seed played her first tournament since the Australian Open at the Top Seed Open presented by Bluegrass Orthopaedics - making the quarterfinals with a win over sister Venus - Rus returned at the Prague Open, and won two qualifying matches plus a main draw clash with Alison Van Uytvanck to book the meeting with Williams.
The first set saw just one break point in 12 games, as Rus' lefty serve went toe-to-toe with Williams' famed delivery ahead of the ensuing tie-break. Rus, a former junior standout who once shocked former World No.1 Kim Clijsters at the 2011 French Open, thrice led by a mini-break in the Sudden Death, holding a set point at 6-5.
Undaunted, Williams swept the next three points to clinch the set, and rode the momentum into a first break of serve to start the second.
Peaking just outside the Top 60 in 2012, Rus edged back towards her career-high ranking last year thanks to an astounding 10 ITF Pro Circuit titles, and won her first Grand Slam main draw match in almost eight years at this year's Australian Open. Quickly reversing the break deficit, Rus rolled through six of the next eight games to level the match.
"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.
"Tennis is mental. You know, it's all mental."
Williams began the third set in brave fashion, rallying from 0-40 down in her opening service game - saving four break points total - and channeled that comeback into a 5-2 advantage in the decider with the help of some big serves.
Rus refused to fade, breaking the No.3 seed at love as she served for the match and reeled off four straight games to find herself serving for the upset, breaking for a second straight time with a thunderous forehand winner.
What followed was an epic game that forced Williams to battle from the brink of defeat, converting her third break point to force a second and decisive tie-break.
The former World No.1 saved her best for last as she roared through the Sudden Death without dropping a point, clinching the win with a swinging forehand winner.
Up next for Williams is No.13 seed Maria Sakkari, who survived a second set tie-break against Yulia Putintseva to advance earlier in the afternoon.
"I'm taking it a day at a time. I'm going to see how I feel tomorrow obviously. But I'm ready. I'm excited.
"I'm actually super fit and I'm super ready. I feel like I'm ready for anything. I think the reason I wanted to be super fit was because it is six weeks in a row basically playing tennis every day, so this is a really good opportunity for me to get ready and be super ready for clay, as well."