LONDON—Pardon the maternal-inspired allusion, but the way it went was that Serena Williams labored through her first-round match at Wimbledon. Playing her first match here as a mother, amid blustery conditions on Court One, Williams earned a 7-5, 6-3 win over 105th-ranked Arantxa Rus that fell into the category of matches a player is glad to get through, parse out a few lessons and then shelve deep into the memory bank.
An inch short of six feet tall, Rus is a giraffe of a lefty, a stylistic understudy of sorts to Petra Kvitova, but lacking Kvitova’s prowess and sustainability. And that has made all the difference. Rus’ strokes are a series of staccato-like, sprayed slaps and cracks, her brand of disruption applied with the cold and the hot. Forceful drives will thunder, followed by seemingly implausible errors, be it long, wide or into the net. But when cornered, Rus can come up with remarkable shots, as if being on death row liberates her from the tyranny of awkward technique. All this makes her hardly the most comfortable first-round opponent, especially on grass, even more so on a windy day.
“I haven't played in wind in a really long time," said Williams. "So I'm just not used to that yet. It was really windy for me today. I just wasn't quite used to that level of wind. Something that I would normally be okay with, normally have, Oh, this is this. It's just getting all back to the hang of things, getting used to different circumstances.”
WATCH—Match point from Serena's win over Rus:
Added to the opponent and the weather was the matter of Williams’ health. After winning three matches at Roland Garros, she’d withdrawn with a pectoral injury. Per usual, Williams played no tournaments between Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Due to her injury, Williams this year went so far as to not hit a serve until she arrived at Wimbledon to practice. So while there is never any doubt of Williams’ desire to compete, it was uncertain how healthy and sharp she would be for this match.
The pattern of no pattern surfaced quite early. Often when winning points, Williams impressed as she has for so long—the power, the depth, the ability to repeatedly crack the ball boldly. Then, hello rust, melded with the chaotic play of an opponent Williams later described as “tricky.”
Serving at 2-0 in the first set, Williams was broken. Holding a 15-40 lead in the next game, she misfired on several groundstrokes, giving Rus a chance to hold for 2-all. At 2-all, 30-15, Williams played two brilliant points—a 108-m.p.h. ace down the T, followed by a scorching down-the-line forehand winner, a drive hit hard and early. But with Rus serving at 2-3, love-30, Williams again donated two points, missing two straight returns. Later in the set, Rus serving at 4-5, love-30, Williams netted an easy backhand off a dribbled let cord. Again Rus held. Only at 5-6 was Williams at last able to break her to win the set. It had taken 45 minutes.
Though it was hard to imagine Williams losing this match, it was also hard for her to grab it by the throat. Everything from the streaky Rus to odd circumstances clogged up the plot. In the second set, Williams serving at 1-1, 40-30, Rus lofted a short lob near the left sideline, setting up a highly makeable overhead for Williams. The linesman called it out, but was immediately overruled by the chair. Instead of an easy smash, Williams had to replay the point. Starting with that replayed point, Rus won seven of the next eight to go up 3-1.
DAILY SERVE—Recapping Wimbledon's first day of play
Serving at 1-3, Williams went down love-30. Would there be a third set? Not quite. Williams held. It was hardly inspiring or even dramatic tennis. But it remained interesting. This, after all, was Serena Williams. And Rus? If she was at all intimidated by Williams, it didn’t show in her body language or attitude.
But as a wise teacher once said, pressure will reveal technical flaws. Serving at 3-4, 15-all, Rus shanked two straight forehands to go down 15-40. Of course, on the next point she unloaded an inspired forehand winner, crisp as a piece of toast. And also of course, at 30-40, off a short Williams return, Rus feebly netted a forehand. Up 7-5, 5-3, Williams was in prime position to close it out.
The last game was a microcosm of the match. Williams went up 40-15. On the first match point, a backhand went long. On the second, Rus lined a forehand return, as carefree and unlabored as any shot she’d hit all day. There came other match points—number three, number four, number five. On two of them, Rus hit the ball with exemplary power and depth. Maybe the wise teacher was wrong about pressure. Or maybe the challenge was to determine when pressure truly exists (recall that Rus had once led 1-3, love-30). Only on her sixth match point was Williams able to close it out.
“Not only do I expect to win, I expect to win emphatically,” she said.
“Sometimes, like I said, I put too much pressure on myself, I'm overanxious. It's really just about learning that balance for me still.” Tennis’ most famous mother had endured a tough day at the office, but at least she’d demonstrated competition’s most important principle: survive and advance.
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