Serena’s Back! Williams Finds Her Calm In Lexington

WASHINGTON, August 12, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

In any other year, former World No. 9 Serena Williams might be gearing up for a run at a US Open title. She’s won six of them and has reached the finals the past two years. However, 2020 has been unlike any other year in pro tennis.

On Tuesday, the top-seeded Williams played her first WTA match of the summer and just the 11th of the year in all competitions due to the five-month coronavirus lockdown of professional tennis. The 38-year-old from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., faced No. 60 Bernarda Pera, 25, a Croatian-born American going after her first career title, for the first time in the opening round of the inaugural Top Seed Open presented by Bluegrass Orthopaedics.

Williams came from a set down, facing 0-40 at 4-all, and pulled out a hard-fought victory over Pera, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1. She won the last nine points of the match.

“I haven’t played in so long… It was good for me to go through and win a match that was three sets,” said Williams during a post-match on-court interview with Tennis Channel. “Honestly, I knew I have been practicing really well, but I wasn’t getting a good rhythm out here. So, I kept thinking, ‘Serena, play like you’ve been practicing.’ I knew I could play better if I just hung in there.”

Williams is used to being the top seed in most tournaments she plays in and her 345-39 career win-loss record has yielded 38 career titles. Now, with the start of the US Open less than three weeks away, Williams is using this week in Lexington, Ky., as a springboard for restarting her season with an eye toward capturing another major singles title, which would tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam crowns. The last major won by Williams was the Australian Open in 2017.

In the new normal of pro tennis, in which matches are played without spectators, players walk on the court wearing masks and maintain social distancing – as well as tapping racquets at center court instead of shaking hands – it was interesting to observe how Serena would adjust in her first match since representing the U.S. in Fed Cup against Latvia last February. Earlier this year, she won Auckland in January (her first title since returning from maternity leave after giving birth to her daughter in September 2017) before being upset in the third round at the Australian Open.

During a Zoom video conference, Williams was asked by Tennis TourTalk to describe the atmosphere on court at the Top Seed Tennis Club: “It was a really calm atmosphere; it was really chill. I can’t say I disliked it at all. I kind of didn’t mind it. I’ve been through so many different things in my career…

“I didn’t know how I was going to feel or how I was going to do, but I really didn’t hate the atmosphere. Being in New York will be a little different because of the massive stadium, but the solo court kind of reminds me of my junior days, so there was something kind of nostalgic about that.”

As the match began under partly cloudy skies and 83º Fahrenheit on the bright blue Deco Turf II hard court, Williams’ first serve was a fault and the first point of her return to tennis from the pandemic lockdown was a forehand winner hit by Pera. She held at 30 in her first game back in five months as her husband, Alexis Ohanian, and daughter, Olympia, watched from under a covered bleacher along with her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. On serve through the first four games, Pera struck first by breaking Williams on her first opportunity at love to push ahead 3-2.

Then, in Pera’s ensuing service game, during the 14th point, Williams very awkwardly stumbled lunging to her far right and fell backward. It appeared that her left foot and ankle took the brunt of the fall. Pera went on to hold for a 4-2 advantage, then saved her second break point of the game to hold, again, for 5-3. Pera closed out the 46-minute opening set by hitting a solid forehand winner off a second-serve return that handcuffed Williams to win 6-4. Williams hadn’t found her rhythm.

In the second set, after missing her first five break-point opportunities, Williams finally broke for a 3-1 lead. However, she was unable to consolidate the break and the players were back on serve. Then, Serena saved four more break points with her back against the wall from 0-40 and held for 5-4. She earned a set point at 15-40 and evened the match by winning on her second set-point opportunity, 6-4. Five points from defeat, she leveled matters and sent the match to a third set.

Perhaps, for the first time, Williams seemed in the zone as she broke Pera to go ahead 3-1. She would not look back and wrapped up the set 6-1 and the victory, in two hours and 16 minutes, to advance to the second round against her older sister, Venus, for the 31st time in their storied careers. Serena leads the career head-to-head series 18-12.

Williams served seven aces but double faulted six times. She saved 11 break points and was broken just twice. She broke Pera four times in 12 tries and outpointed her opponent 102-93.

“I won because I was calm. I think it was a good match for me to build upon for the rest of the week,” said Williams.

“I was pleased with how competitive I was out there, staying in the moment and not getting down on myself. I don’t know how much I need to work on because I’m playing unbelievably in practice. I know I’m going to get better with each match, and I’m okay with that because today was nothing compared to how I’m practicing. I just need more rhythm, more time to be out there playing the match.”

Asked if she would stick around to watch her older sister, Venus, play against Victoria Azarenka, Serena said: “I feel like I always play Venus in every single tournament first or second round, so that’s annoying. And, I always play Vika, so we’ll see.”

Around the Top Seed Tennis Club

• Venus Williams came into just her third match of 2020 looking for her first victory while owning a 5-2 head-to-head advantage over fellow former No. 1 and Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka. Vika, full of fighting spirit, was also looking for her first win of the year in just her second event after losing in the first round in Monterrey to Tamara Zidansek. She sat out the entire Australian swing earlier this year, including the Australian Open, for “personal reasons.”

Tuesday afternoon on Center Court, the 40-year-old future Hall of Famer Williams showed a killer instinct in her 6-3, 6-2 win over Azarenka in one hour and 20 minutes to set up a second-round showdown with her younger sister, Serena. It was Venus’ first tour victory and it came after a five-month layoff.

Williams won 70 percent of his first-serve points and backed it by garnering 65 percent of her second-serve points. She saved the only break point she faced and broke went three-for-three in break points against Azarenka. Williams outpointed her opponent. 58-43.

“Yes, that was a crazy first round. It’s almost like the first match of the season,” said Williams. “This is the second time we’ve had to do this. First time I’ve played in six months and I’m playing a Grand Slam champion and a former World No. 1. So, it is stressful to come out here and play your best under these new circumstances. (Vika) played very well, she never gave up to the end.

“Who would have guessed this draw would happen, that would play a Grand Slam champion and a former World No. 1 in the first two rounds in Lexington, Ky.? It is what it is. These are great tests for me.”

• Two of 16 Americans in the singles draw, teen sensation No. 53 Coco Gauff faced 134th-ranked qualifier Caroline Dolehide. Gauff, the youngest player in the draw at age 16, is playing in her third Tour-level event of 2020 and ninth overall. Previously, she reached the second round at Auckland and fourth round at the Australian Open, where she beat Venus Williams and Naomi Osaka before losing to eventual champion Sofia Kenin. In one hour and 42 minutes, Gauff looked pretty good in her 7-5, 7-5 victory to reach the second round against No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka.

During an on-court interview with Tennis Channel Gauff gave herself an “A” for attitude and effort. “That was my first match back since January. I probably didn’t play my best tennis. I was really nervous for today’s match since I haven’t played in a while. I played better than I thought I would,” she said.

Gauff hit eight aces and won 80 percent of her first-serve points. She saved five of seven break points and broke Dolehide four times while outpointing her opponent 79-67.

• In the final Center Court match, rising Canadian star Leylah Fernandez, who is ranked second in her country only to Bianca Andreescu, upset No. 7 seed Sloane Stephens, 6-3, 6-3. In this second matchup between the 2017 US Open champion and the 17-year-old qualifier ranked 120th – the first was won by Fernandez at Acapulco earlier this year – Fernandez overcame six double faults and a service break to break Stephens four times in five tries, won 71 percent of her service points and 48 percent of her returns. She outpointed Stephens 61-42. Next, Fernandez will face wild card Shelby Rogers.

Passing shots

• Fourth seed Amanda Anisimova, ranked 28th, withdrew with a right shoulder injury before her first-round match against No. 302 Catherine Bellis, who was using a special ranking to enter the main draw. She was replaced by 128th-ranked lucky loser Francesca di Lorenzo. Bellis won 6-1, 6-2 and will next face fellow American Jessica Pegula, ranked 81st.

• Other winners: No. 63 Jil Teichmann defeated 114th-ranked qualifier Anna Kalinskaya, 6-2, 7-5; No. 61 Anna Blinkova advanced over 96th-ranked qualifier Kristie Ahn, 2-6, 6-4, 3-1 (retired, knee injury); No. 5 Yulia Putintseva beat No. 56 Ajla Tomljanovic, 6-0, 6-4; 135th-ranked qualifier Olga Govortsova won over 358th-ranked qualifier Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 7-6 (4), 6-1, and No. 116 Shelby Rogers defeated No. 77 Misaki Doi, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2.

• Serena Williams has a 317-51 win-loss record when she’s competing on home soil, an .861 winning clip. She’s won 27 of her 73 WTA titles in the United States.

• According to the WTA Insider, No. 6 seed Magda Linette of Poland spent most of her shutdown in Florida where she practiced daily with Australian Open champion and Florida resident Sofia Kenin. “I was really lucky that Sonia wanted to hit with us. I think we really practiced well. We had a really good time on the court.”

• Wednesday’s order of play features the lower half of the singles draw with four Center Court matches beginning at 11 a.m. Eastern (5 p.m. CEST): No. 8 seed Ons Jabeur vs. qualifier Olga Govortsova followed by Anna Blinkova vs. Marie Bouzkova. Then, it’s Coco Gauff vs. No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka followed by No. 6 seed Magda Linette vs. Jennifer Brady.