MELBOURNE—There were a couple of question marks surrounding the generally unquestionable Serena Williams game tonight, but the American didn’t take long to answer them in her quasi-routine, 6-3, 6-2 win over Tamira Paszek.
First, there was the question of rust. Williams had played only two matches in preparation for this Australian Open. While she claimed, with a laugh, that that was “definitely” enough, and while she certainly appeared to be sufficiently fit, we hadn’t seen much of her game since it had gone so far off the rails in the final of last year’s U.S. Open. But Williams came out belting the ball and moving, if not at her all-time best, at least with energy and springy determination. By the eighth game, she had found her range, and she came back from 40-0 down on Paszek’s serve to bully her around the court for the match-changing break of serve.
The second question was her ankle, which she had injured two weeks ago in Brisbane. After a couple of tests in the first game, where she was required to run wide and plant on that foot, and a couple of anxious moments at the start of the second set when she nearly rolled it over, the ankle appeared to hold steady under maximum stress.
In the end, the match was closer and more entertaining than the scores might indictate, and it was probably just the first-rounder Williams would have asked for. Paszek held her own in rallies and made Williams work, without ever seriously worrying her. Williams made errors, blew break points, and grew frustrated at moments, but she was on top of the rallies virtually the whole time. She jumped on returns from Paszek’s first service game on, and won points on the strength of her crosscourt ground strokes alone. When she has those angles working, and can dictate the point from the middle of the court, I wonder sometimes if she ever needs to hit the ball down the line at all.
The night’s best rally came when Williams had a break point in the first game of the second set. The two players whipsawed each other side to side along the baseline until Paszek won the point with a stab forehand that caught the tape and fell over. Willliams applauded with her racquet. More remarkable was the reaction of her mother. It was hard to tell at times if the travel-weary and tennis-weary Oracene was awake behind her sunglasses. But late night or not, and this match started very late, she sprang to life at the end of that point and threw her hands in the air for Paszek’s winner. Even if Serena didn't win the point, at least she gave mom something to cheer.
Like Roger Federer’s win last night, this was a sweaty, hard-working start to Williams’ Aussie Open. There will be hiccups and Houdini acts to come, but for now the early questions about Serena in Oz were answered.