NEW YORK, NY, USA - No.3 seed Serena Williams moved into the third round of the US Open on Thursday night, battling past an inspired Margarita Gasparyan, 6-2, 6-4.
"I feel like every day I'm on a new journey, and in this tournament in particular and this year," she said in her post-match press conference. "So I feel really good. I feel like I'm on that journey and I'm going in the right direction."
The former World No.1 has never lost before the third round in 20 total appearances, and kept that streak alive after ousting the unseeded Russian in 93 minutes under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
"I love the crowd here, obviously, but I've been playing so long that I'm into the modern era where it's all digital! There is something kind of calming about it, though."
Williams and Gasparyan last played in 2016, when the Russian rolled into the second week of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time at the Australian Open. From a career-high ranking of World No.41, what followed for Gasparyan was a knee injury and subsequent surgeries that kept her off the court for much of the next two years before winning a Tashkent Open title in late 2018 and returning to the Top 100 in 2019.
She earned her first WTA main draw win of the season in three sets over reigning Olympic champion Monica Puig in the first round, while her illustrious opposition made quicker work of Kristie Ahn on Tuesday, passing Chris Evert's record 102 match wins in Flushing Meadows.
Sweeping through the first three games, Williams staved off a break point en route to a 5-1 lead. Though Gasparyan broke back as the American served for the opening set, the 23-time Grand Slam champion showed her mettle in a long eighth game. Breaking for the set on her second opportunity, she closed out a near-perfect set that featured 12 winners to just three unforced errors.
As the second set got more competitive, the American emerged from an exchange of breaks with a 4-2 lead, surviving a ten-minute, five-deuce game to put herself two games from victory.
Gasparyan quickly caught fire from there, winning eight of the next 10 points to level the set, and ended up drawing Williams into another epic game that could have seen her serve to level the match.
"I felt like she returned really well, and I feel like what's held me back in the past is getting frustrated. I'm out here, fighting, and I felt like the minor setbacks would help me know what not to do next time."
Battling through to hold, Serena stepped in to return and two loose forehands from the Russian put her over the finish line and into the Round of 32 for a 20th time.
"The only thing that gets me flustered is really me, because I always feel like I'm not winning every point. That doesn't make sense, and usually I'm just calm.
"I just think with the pressure and everything that I've felt like I just needed to be perfect. I always feel like I'm not perfect unless I'm perfect. That's not a fun way to live your career and live your life.
"So it doesn't matter if I lose 20 points in a row now. I just feel like, it's okay, it's fine, I'm here, and I'm happy. I get to play tennis after all these years. So just looking at it this way, it's nothing really. It's really just me and my mentality."
In all, she hit an impressive 27 winners - nearly double of her 16 unforced errors - and converted five of 11 break point chances while striking seven aces throughout the two-set tussle.
Up next for the American is countrywoman and 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens, who dispatched another tour mom in Olga Govortsova earlier in the day.
"She's such a good player, and plays so smooth, sort of like Miloslav Mecir back in the day. She'll look like she's not expending much energy and then bam! There's five winners. She's obviously won here before and beaten me before, so she knows how to play well. It's not easy, so I'm glad I had a tough match today to get ready for that one."
Leading Stephens 5-1 in total head-to-head, the pair last played at the 2015 French Open, where Stephens led Williams by a set; their only US Open meeting came in 2013, where Serena won in two.