US Open 2016: Serena Williams shows doubters she still means business
Serena Williams beats Ekaterina Makarova in straight sets to reach the second round of the US Open in New York
There were rumours that the world No1 Serena Williams may have a few problems in her opening match at this year’s US Open.
She had played only seven tournaments this year, having returned to the tour for the first time since an exhausting 2015. Last year, her campaign in pursuit of the calendar Grand Slam was halted in the semis of the US Open—one year ago—and did she not play another match.
Come 2016, she lost her Australian Open title in the final match to Angelique Kerber, who is now also challenging her for the No1 ranking after three and a half years at the top. Williams also gave up her French Open title to another first-time champion Garbine Muguruza. The Spaniard also has a chance of taking the No1 ranking.
She fell one short of the Indian Wells title, losing to Victoria Azarenka, and although she won Wimbledon and Rome, her desire to win singles gold in Rio fell short of the medals, and she subsequently pulled out of Cincinnati with a shoulder injury.
So she arrived at her home Major with the aim of winning her eighth US title, of winning her 23rd Major—finally overtaking Steffi Graf—and of defending her No1 ranking. No small task for a woman who will turn 35 in a fortnight, especially with so little match preparation and a dodgy shoulder.
To add grist to the rumour mill, she drew a tough first opponent in a tough quarter of the draw. It would be Ekaterina Makarova, who was just outside the top 32 when the seedings were allotted for the draw, but by the time she faced Williams, she was ranked 29: It was not possible for the former champion to draw a worse player in the first round.
What’s more, the rangy Russian was a semi-finalist here just two years ago, and at the Australian Open last year. And she had beaten Williams in one of their previous five matches, in Melbourne in 2012.
Only once since Williams played her first Major as a 17 year old in 1998 had she lost in the first round, once in 64 tournaments. Could this be the second time?
Resplendent in a stunning black outfit that had its pleated skirt picked out in shocking pink, she also wore her “business face” right from the start.
She broke in the sixth game and served out the first set in under half an hour, 6-3. Makarova was not playing poorly, but even so, few rallies developed into long affairs.
Come 2-2 in the second set, Williams began to step in to take the Makarova serve early and, given the chance, pounded towards the net. Rarely did she have to make the follow-up volley, so good was her set-up from the back. She still made five out of six of them, though.
Sure enough, her aggressive tactics got the break, and with Williams winning 90 percent of points on her first serve—28 out of 31—there was little room for a Russian challenge. Williams finished on a roll, breaking for the match, 6-3: Just 63 minutes.
She next plays Wild Card Vania King, and to ease her way a little deeper into the draw, her first possible seed No29 Ana Ivanovic lost to Denisa Allertova, leaving No16 seed Sam Stosur the only other seed in her eighth.
So she has a little time for more shoulder recovery, but Williams was making no snap judgements about it just yet.
“I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see. I haven’t been able to play that much since Wimbledon. Every day I’ll just see how it goes.”
Her sister Venus Williams, seeded No6, is at the other end of the top half, thus setting the chance of a semi-final contest between them. And if her younger sister Serena continues to set remarkable statistics, so does Venus. The woman who turned 36 a couple of months ago is appearing in her record 72nd Grand Slam campaign: Her first was in 1997.
Venus outlasted Kateryna Kozlova through two and three-quarter hours, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4, to set a second round match against Julia Goerges.
The next two highest seeds in this half of the draw, No4 Agnieszka Radwanska and No5 Simona Halep, also looked particularly impressive, too. Each lost just two games in advancing to the next round.
But for now, the story is still about Serena and her records. If she wins the title here, she will not only overtake Graf’s 22 Majors but seal the No1 ranking. And after today, there are probably fewer doubters out there than a 24 hours ago.