By Christopher Clarey / New York Times
MELBOURNE, Australia—The danger can come from anywhere at this stage, as Serena Williams proved two weeks ago with an early loss in Auckland, New Zealand, after making 88 unforced errors in the wind against the young American Madison Brengle.
The risk of a stumble was clear from the start on Tuesday in Williams’s opening match at the Australian Open. Across the net in Rod Laver Arena was Belinda Bencic, the 19-year-old Swiss with the precociously elegant game who had upset Williams in their most recent match.
That was in 2015 in the semifinals in Toronto: a high-profile tournament that Bencic went on to win. And though Bencic has had injury trouble since then and plummeted from the top 10 to No. 59, she is healthy again and back on the upswing after playing in the Hopman Cup with the upbeat Roger Federer.
“Serena had no choice today,” her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said. “If she was there only at 50 percent, she knew she would not win, even if it’s not the same Bencic as a year ago.”
There were moments of tension and hints of trouble, but Williams was the more powerful, more focused player for much of the match. Her 6-4, 6-3 victory represented a major step up from Auckland.
It came on a classically hot summer afternoon when the ball kids’ legionnaires’ caps came in handy. The temperature in the Rod Laver Arena flirted with 100 degrees.
“I knew I had to be tough and strong coming out here,” said Williams, who will face Lucie Safarova, another former top-10 player, in the second round.
Safarova had to save nine match points in the second set on Tuesday before defeating Yanina Wickmayer, 3-6, 7-6 (9-7), 6-1.
The nerviest moments for Williams came late in the first set and again when it came time to close out the match. Tied at 4-4 in the first, she won the first point of the game with a full-stretch backhand, sliced cross-court, that was both spectacular and highly unusual. A little lucky, too, in that it came off the string bed near the top of her racket’s frame.
“After playing so many years, you deserve a little bit of luck,” she said in her on-court television interview with the former Australian doubles star Rennae Stubbs, one of the many players who have retired while Williams has played on.
This is Williams’s 17th Australian Open. She is 35 years old and recently engaged, and her fiancé, Alexis Ohanian, was sitting in the second row of the players’ box, applauding her successes.
“I’m really fortunate,” Williams said. “And I’m just happy to be playing.”
Mouratoglou was asked if Williams’s betrothal might help her find an even better balance on court.
“We will see,” he said. “It’s difficult to prejudge what will happen, but what I can say is I prefer to work with a player who is happy than with a player who is not. In general, it’s better, but then with Serena, we’ve both seen her unhappy playing her best tennis.
“She said it in her book. When she did her first Serena Slam, she was everything but happy.”
Williams has written that her run of dominance in 2002 and 2003, when she won all four major tournaments in a row over the course of two years, was partly linked to her desire to channel into her tennis her frustration over a romantic disappointment.
“Exactly,” Mouratoglou said. “So she is so surprising, but in general, of course, it’s a good thing—a player who is happy in her life—so it should help her on the court.”
There is still plenty of tennis history within her reach. With 22 Grand Slam singles titles, Williams remains tied with Steffi Graf for the most in the Open era. They are just two behind the all-time leader Margaret Court, who has her name on one of the Australian Open show courts.
Williams’s name will undoubtedly grace some tennis temple in the future, as well, but for now she is still busy with the task and matches at hand.
At 4-4 she reeled off seven straight games, taking a 5-0 lead in the second set before Bencic recovered her balance and range and made the denouement more complex. She rallied as Williams suddenly looked hesitant and tight on her second serve.
But at 5-3, Williams managed to make the right choices and the right shots under the sort of pressure she has been dealing with at the majors for nearly 20 years.
But this moment in her life is a moment apart. When she had held off Bencic and finished talking with Stubbs, she walked to the wall of Laver Arena to sign autographs while a beaming Ohanian—still in the players’ box—took photos of her with his phone from across the stadium where she has won six times.
Image credits: AP