At least this one only took two sets. In the two recent tournaments Serena Williams had played prior to her US Open first-rounder versus 96th-ranked Kristie Ahn, all five of her matches had been three-setters. At two key stages today, that also appeared a possibility versus Ahn, an attentive and upbeat Stanford grad who took a 2-0 lead in each set and in the second served at 2-1, 40-15.

But in the end, as she has for an unsurpassed four decades, Williams found what it took when she needed it most, scraping out a 7-5, 6-3 victory to earn a record 102nd US Open singles victory and up her first round mark in New York to 20-0. “I was really pleased with how I just fought for every point,” Williams told ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez immediately after the match.

“I've been playing a ton of tight matches,” said Williams. “I felt like, all right, I just wanted to be Serena focused from the first point to the last point no matter what happens.”

Early on, though, little of that intensity was present. A pair of double-faults handed Ahn the opening game of the match, rapidly followed by several groundstrokes sprayed long.

As the world knows, Williams’ US Open saga is epic, including six title runs. Ahn’s US Open resume is significantly more modest, but certainly has its own heartwarming quality. A year ago in New York, at the age of 27, she won her first match in a major, beating ’04 US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, and went on to reach the round of 16. Call it an engaging TikTok effort—fitting given that throughout the pandemic, Ahn has made many such videos. Ahn’s endearing and amusing pieces have earned more than half a million likes.

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Serena Williams breaks record for most US Open wins with 102

Serena Williams breaks record for most US Open wins with 102

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Throughout the first set, Ahn was tidy as TikTok. Ahn’s disciplined blend of footwork and efficient, flat ball-striking repeatedly put her in place to take the ball early, rob Williams of time and pin her into compromised positions.  Said Williams, “she really strikes the ball really hard. She mixes up a lot. She plays a lot of the different shots. You don't really know what to expect.”

The most important game of the match came with Williams serving at 4-all in the first set. At 30-all, an Ahn slice backhand elicited a Williams error. But on the next three points, Williams came up with tremendous serves. Then, with Ahn serving at 5-6, Williams upped her depth and intensity, hammering a pair of weak serves to go up love-30 and claim the set, 7-5.

A similar pattern surfaced in the second set. Though Ahn held those two points for a 3-1 lead, she surrendered that game with a double-fault. From there, crowd or no crowd, noise or no noise, it was clear the momentum had shifted.

Her opportunity gone, Ahn soon become more witness than participant. The crushing blows came when Ahn served at 2-3, love-30. First, a Williams forehand up-the-line passing shot, her first forehand winner of the match. Then, at 15-40, a thundering backhand down-the-line return winner.

Now up a set and 4-2, the only question was if Williams was going to lose focus as she had in prior recent matches. Not this time. Serving at 5-3, Williams in that game hit two aces and closed it out in 81 minutes. Ahn had offered a challenge, but you can only threaten a queen so many times before you must kill her—or in turn, suffer the consequences.