The sour memories Serena Williams carried from her previous match at Arthur Ashe Stadium — the U.S. Open final loss to Naomi Osaka in September that devolved into a controversial and confusing spectacle — weren’t reflected in her strong performance Monday. But she made it clear she can’t be counted out here, and that she hasn’t forgotten the infamous occasion that polarized the tennis world.
Back on the showcase court at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center for her first match at this year’s U.S. Open, Williams was intense and businesslike in a 6-1, 6-1 thrashing of Maria Sharapova. Williams took 59 minutes to defeat Sharapova for the 19th time in a row, a streak that excludes a walkover in Sharapova’s favor in the fourth round of the 2018 French Open.
“I just feel like her game really matches up well against mine,” Williams said after improving her record against Sharapova to 20-2. “I always said her ball somehow lands in my strike zone. I don’t know. It’s just perfect for me.”
Williams, seeded eighth, wisely controlled her emotions as well as she controlled the play against the unseeded Sharapova. Trying again for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam event singles championship, she was efficient and calm, a distinct contrast to her unbridled anger in unleashing a tirade at chair umpire Carlos Ramos in last year’s final because of what she considered unfair and sexist calls against her. Asked Monday for her reaction to U.S. Tennis Assn. officials deciding Ramos won’t officiate her matches this year she replied, “I don’t know who that is.”
No. 3 men’s seed Roger Federer didn’t match Williams’ efficiency in winning his first-round match at Ashe. The 20-time Grand Slam event champion stumbled early against 190th-ranked Sumit Nagal of India and committed 19 unforced errors in the first set but recovered his timing and serving ability in time to pull out a 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory.
“Credit to him for really playing a solid first set,” said Federer, who acknowledged he was surprised by Nagal’s early poise. “It’s never easy to come out and play your best, even though it’s kind of what you live for, you dream about, playing on the big stage. I think he did that very well.”
Federer said he tried to put the first set aside and recalibrate after serving too long several times.
“Maybe it’s not a bad thing to go through a match like this,” he said, recalling he lost the first set of his first-round match at Wimbledon but righted himself and reached the final, where he lost to Novak Djokovic in an epic five-set match. “At the end you look at the last three sets and they were good. That’s encouraging.”
Williams moved aggressively and well, showing no aftereffects of the back spasms that led her to retire from a final in Toronto and pull out of a tournament in Cincinnati this month.
“I’ve always been really mentally strong. I’ve always been really physically strong,” she said. “I think just putting those two together at an event would be the biggest obstacle for me.”
Williams won the first set in 24 minutes, breaking Sharapova’s serve for a 3-1 lead and again for 5-1. She broke for a 1-0 lead in the second set and faced two break points in the fourth game but escaped both, a sequence highlighted by a nasty backhand that whizzed past Sharapova.
“I think I was able to zone in, especially down break points, not letting her in the match because she’s the kind of player that keeps going. Even towards the end, she just wants to keep fighting,” Williams said. “One point here or there, she could have won at least another game. I wanted to make sure I stayed focused.”
Tossed a softball question afterward about the match having seemed tighter than the score indicated, Sharapova had the grace to be honest.
“I don’t think it felt that much closer, no,” said the five-time Grand Slam event winner whose ranking has fallen to 87th in part because of her persistent shoulder problems. “I thought she served really well. Found her spots really well. Didn’t feel like we got into too many long rallies.”
Williams on Wednesday will face wild-card entrant Caty McNally of Cincinnati, who opened with a 6-4, 6-1 triumph over Timea Bacsinszky. McNally was born Nov. 20, 2001. By then, Williams had played in four U.S. Open singles tournaments and had won once, in 1999. She was ranked No. 6 in the world the week McNally was born. That’s happening more often now to Williams, who will be 38 in a few weeks. On Monday, at least, her game was as sharp as her memory.