SINGAPORE—Regardless of how great Serena Williams has been over the years, it was impossible to know how she would fare against Ana Ivanovic in the opening match of the WTA Finals. Williams has been struggling with a knee injury over the past few weeks and wasn’t sure if should would be able to play Singapore at all. On Sunday she decided to give it a go. And on Monday night, as the world No. 1 served big and cracked her shots on the way to defeating Ivanovic, 6-4, 6-4.

The Serbian used a variety of shots and dared Williams by coming to net, but wasn't consistent enough at crunch times. As Ivanovic said after the match, she rushed too much when it mattered the most and, once again, Williams didn't implode.

The two have developed a big rivalry this season. While Williams owns an 8-1 record against Ivanovic, her one loss came in the fourth round of this year’s Australian Open. Serena was lethal in enacting some revenge out when the two played again at Rome in May, but Ivanovic came very close to knocking off Williams again in late July, in the Stanford quarterfinals. Serena was steadier and pulled it out on a hot night, 7-5 in the third.

Williams then bested Ivanovic in Cincinnati a few weeks later, but at the very least, “AI” showed that she can hit with Serena from the forehand side—she loves smoking shots that wing; her backhand isn't as strong—and could charge the net. The same tactics showed themselves in Singapore as Ivanovic had her chances, but once again fell short.

One of the obvious keys to the lopsided record is that Williams is much better on serve. Yes, there are occasions when Serena isn’t landing her first serves, but it is very difficult to break her, even if she isn’t painting the lines. On Monday, Serena finished with 12 aces; Ivanovic had zero. Serena had four double faults; Ana had seven.

Was that essentially it? Not entirely. At 4-4 in the first set, Ivanovic held a break point, rushed the net, and had a look at a pretty easy forehand. But after her volley flew long, Serena held—and then jumped on Ivanovic’s returns, breaking to grab the first set.


WTA Finals: S. Williams d. Ivanovic

WTA Finals: S. Williams d. Ivanovic

The same thing in the second set: Ivanovic was smiling and almost singing when she smoked a series of solid winners. At 3-3, she leapt up in the air on an overhead from the baseline and Williams couldn't react when she dove at the net. But Serena kept digging, began to figure out which ways Ivanovic was going, and soon broke her serve. The match's conclusion was underway.

Ivanovic admits that she has to strike her second serves better if she is going to take out her Red Group opponents Eugenie Bouchard and Simon Halep and reach the semifinals. But the former No. 1 (which she admitted it seems like a long time ago, in 2008 when she won the French Open) has played much better this year and won’t go quietly.

But Williams looked just fine in the win and even though her legs are sore, she is the clear favorite here. Not only did she win the season-ending championships last year, but she is pretty good against her foes. How good? Serena has a combined 50 wins and four losses against the other seven players at the WTA Finals.

Can anyone beat Serena? Last night, she said that her serve has been much better and that she will attack more on her second serves. The American can actually do that, and even though she isn’t 100 percent physically, it could be just enough. As Williams said after the match: “I can bring my energy level up or just fight, fight.”