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Column: Serena Williams looks to be part of an event bigger than her

Serena Williams acknowledges the crowd after defeating Daria Gavrilova in a first-round match Sunday in Rio de Janeiro.
(Sam Mooy / EPA)

Serena Williams prepared for the Rio Olympics probably longer than the local organizers did, and with greater attention to detail.

The world’s No. 1 female tennis player circled this date on her calendar four years ago, soon after she had added a singles gold medal to the three Olympic doubles golds she won with her sister, Venus. She didn’t do it because she had anything to prove in Rio de Janeiro, or an unsatisfied wish to fulfill. She wanted to be here to represent her country and be part of an event that’s bigger than even she is, and it would have taken something extraordinary for her to change her plans.

That wasn’t the case for everyone. Many of the world’s top-ranked male golfers skipped the Games, maybe enough to undermine the sport’s Olympic future. Five of the ATP’s top 10 players stayed away, including Roger Federer, who is injured, Milos Raonic and recently injured Stan Wawrinka. Defending men’s doubles champions Bob and Mike Bryan cited “their family’s health” for their late withdrawal. Raonic also cited health concerns.

Williams is here, as she intended to be, and the 22-time Grand Slam winner reaffirmed her presence Sunday with a windblown 6-4, 6-2 victory over Daria Gavrilova of Australia in her opening match. Wearing a patriotically themed red-white-and-blue, star-spangled hair tie to hold back her braids, she was present and passionate, though the wind and Gavrilova’s quick court coverage meant her performance was far from perfect.

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“I didn’t consider not coming,” Williams said after her 91-minute match. “I really wanted to be here. I’ve been planning on being here since London. So it would have been a real pity if I’d made all these big plans and I couldn’t make it. So I tried everything I could to be able to come to Rio.”

Now that she’s here, she plans to stay awhile.

After holding serve in an entertaining first game and saving three break points, Williams broke Gavrilova’s serve for a 2-0 lead. Gavrilova, ranked 46th in the world and a recent transplant from Russia to Australia, broke at love in the third game but was broken by Williams in the sixth game. The players brought the lively crowd to its feet several times, including a service break by Gavrilova at love that cut Williams’ lead to 5-4.

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“You know you are playing the best in the world,” Gavrilova said, “but you’re still there trying to beat her.”

Williams broke to win the first set and again for a 3-1 lead in the second set. Gavrilova saved two break points in the sixth game but Williams was too strong on a slow hard court that she later said she likes.

“No one wants to go out in the first round. It’s always a little tricky and you always at least want to win a match. So I feel really good about that,” said Williams, who punctuated several winners with screams of “Come on!” directed at herself.

The day wasn’t an unqualified success for Williams; she and Venus, top-seeded in women’s doubles, were upset by Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic, 6-3, 6-4, Sunday night — the first time they’ve ever lost an Olympic doubles match.

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Still, Serena said she hopes to enjoy the full flavor of the Games. “I think the Olympics experience is always different because you’re not the focus,” she said. “There’s so many different athletes and my eyes are glued to the TV watching the different disciplines and everything going on.”

She’s not staying in the athletes’ village, but she marched in the opening ceremony. And, like other visitors, she endured the transportation delays that come with moving thousands of people at once. Although she sounded petulant on Snapchat Friday when she complained of being tired and hungry while stuck in traffic, her mood quickly changed. She twerked and danced her way through the ceremony and told her followers she had a great time.

Rafael Nadal, a 14-time Grand Slam winner and 2008 Olympic gold medalist, carried Spain’s flag into Maracana Stadium during the opening ceremony. Like Williams, he didn’t have to be here to prove anything, and he said Sunday after his 6-2, 6-1 victory over Federico Delbonis of Argentina that he almost didn’t compete because of a lingering wrist injury. But he made it.

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Top-ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia made it to Rio but his stay was brief, and he was distraught enough to cry as he left the court Sunday night after being beaten by Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2).

Andy Murray, who not only made it to Rio but carried Britain’s flag Friday, made it out of the first round in singles with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Victor Troicki of Serbia, but Murray and his brother Jamie were upset in doubles by Brazil’s Thomaz Bellucci and Andre Sa, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (14).

“Bearing the Spanish flag the other night is something that stays in my mind for the rest of my life,” an emotional Nadal said. “It was an unforgettable thing for me. I always watched the Olympics on television since I was a kid. Just being here is great.”

Especially when you have nothing to prove and everything to gain and enjoy.

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