It was not the tennis record Serena Williams has been chasing with mounting urgency and frustration, but her 102nd singles victory earned Tuesday at the United States Open, the most of any player, male or female, still came as a relief.
In this strange and abbreviated season, straightforward matches have been difficult to come by for Williams, the most successful women’s player of the 21st century.
Williams’s 7-5, 6-3 victory over Kristie Ahn in all-but-empty Arthur Ashe Stadium had its wobbles, as well. Williams dropped her opening service game in both sets against the 96th-ranked Ahn and frequently struggled to find her range with her returns and groundstrokes until she finally hit cruising speed midway through the final set.
But it was undoubtedly a step in the right direction for Williams, who looked downcast and adrift as recently as last week in a third-round loss to Maria Sakkari at the Western & Southern Open, which preceded the U.S. Open in New York.
Williams had not won — or played — any match in straight sets since returning to action last month after a six-month break forced by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been years,” Williams joked, although her wry smile was not visible underneath her mask. “Been since the ’90s that I won a match in straight sets. It felt really good. I was like, ‘Serena, just be Serena and close it out.’ And I know I can do that.”
She certainly should know in her fourth decade as a champion. Williams played her first U.S. Open in 1998 and won her first in 1999, becoming a global star, which she remains at age 38 as she continues to pursue a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title with very little else left to prove on a tennis court.
Tuesday’s victory broke her tie at the U.S. Open with Chris Evert, who won 101 singles matches during her formidable career and who was the analyst for ESPN for Tuesday’s match.
“She’s got to play neater tennis, more solid, consistent tennis,” Evert said of Williams before it began.
Her performance was no doubt an improvement, particularly when it came to sealing the deal: she won five of the last six games and finished with 12 aces.
But it was not yet the sort of rock-solid, overwhelming on-target performance to send shivers through the diminished field. Williams no doubt has a grand opportunity at this tournament, with nearly a quarter of the top 100 players missing, including six of the top 10.
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She looks motivated and quite fit, but she has also lost some of her traditional ability to intimidate. Ahn, a former collegiate star at Stanford University, was the latest example of an opponent who seemed comfortable in her presence.
The daughter of Korean immigrants, Ahn clearly does not suffer from stage fright in general as her clever and viral TikTok videos have made clear during the tour hiatus. She reached the fourth round at last year’s U.S. Open but has yet to win a singles match on the tour in 2020 or any tour title in any year.
And yet, in her first match against Williams, she started convincingly and cleverly shifted tactics and pace, alternating sliced backhands with flat forehand blasts and often getting the better of the baseline exchanges.
But Williams was still able to summon her signature weapon when she needed it: hitting aces to all four corners of the service boxes and above all doing damage with her wide sliced serve in the deuce court.
“I was really happy with how I just fought for every point, no matter how I was playing,” Williams said.
She also seemed to be working on shortening the points, rushing the net more than usual and with mixed results.
Above all, she held firm under pressure, which has long been her trademark but has lately been an issue.
Last week against Sakkari, Williams did not put up her customary fight for much of the third set. She rushed between points and overhit groundstrokes intentionally as if she were in a hurry to get off the court and end the suffering.
“I put myself in a bad situation,” she said afterward. “It’s like dating a guy that you know sucks. That’s literally what I keep doing out here. It’s like I have to get rid of this guy. It just makes no sense.”
Tuesday was a better date, and it earned her a second-round match on Thursday with Margarita Gasparyan, a Russian ranked No. 117 whom Williams has beaten in straight sets in their two previous encounters.
Bigger challenges presumably await as Williams tries to beat the clock and tie Margaret Court, the Australian who holds the record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
If she does it this year in New York, she will have to do it in an environment more appropriate for reflection than exertion. Even though Williams already had played five matches without fans since the hiatus, it had to be unsettling to walk into Ashe Stadium, the place where she has won six U.S. Open singles titles, and see five tiers of empty stands in a show court that normally accommodates more than 23,000 spectators.
“It’s quiet, but it’s such a big stadium,” she said, examining her familiar yet unfamiliar surroundings after the victory. “It’s a Grand Slam, so I’m still, I think, as passionate and intense out there.”
More vulnerable, too, but Williams, the greatest player of her era, should never be counted out.