From Houdini act to routine win: Serena Williams is officially back

From Houdini act to routine win: Serena Williams is officially back

Her comeback win over Bernarda Pera at the Top Seed Open in Lexington was a blast from a virus-free past.

We've been live blogging a loaded day in Lexington, at the Top Seed Open, on The latest result saw Venus Williams top Victoria Azarenka—setting up a second-rounder against her sister. How did Serena get there? Read on...

“A Houdini act,” is what Tennis Channel commentator Brett Haber called Serena Williams’ 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 win over Bernarda Pera at the Top Seed Open on Tuesday.

At one level, that wasn’t an inaccurate description. Serena was down a set and 0-40 on her serve at 4-4 in the second. One more miss and Pera would have served for the match—and up to that stage, she had been holding pretty consistently. But Serena didn’t offer her one more miss. At 15-40, she fired a forehand winner, and at 30-40, she did the same with a backhand that just clipped the baseline—another inch and she would have been broken.

Serena's key forehand winner at 15-40:


Instead, Serena held for 5-4, and played her steadiest game of the match to break for the second set. In a matter of roughly five minutes, she had gone from the brink of defeat to level terms. Half an hour later, she was into the second round.

By then, rather than a Houdini act, Serena’s win felt almost routine. In truth, this type of match was probably what most of her fans were expecting in her first time back on court since January.

We know a slow start is always possible with Serena, but this time she was even late getting to the court; a last-minute decision to tape her ankles delayed the match by eight minutes. In the opening game, she double faulted and broke a string. Through the first set, she had trouble getting around on her ground strokes in time, and she struggled to make any inroads on Pera’s first serve. In the fifth game, Serena turned her ankle and fell hard, but got right back up and kept playing.

That said, while Pera is ranked 60th, she’s not an easy player to start a comeback against. She’s left-handed, and she uses her lefty serve well in the ad court. From the ground, she hits hard and flat, and can dismiss any short ball with a quick forehand strike. She had also spent the previous month playing World TeamTennis, while Serena said today that she had played precious few practice matches, let alone real matches, since January. But she had been happy with the way she was practicing, and that seemed to help her in the second set.

“I wasn’t getting a good rhythm,” Serena said afterward. “So I just said, ‘Serena, play like you’ve been playing in practice.’”

Getty Images

At 5-4 in the second set, Serena found the rhythm she was looking for. As she often does when she’s down, she dialed back the pace a little, made a few balls in a row, played good defense, and rebuilt her game and her confidence from there. By the middle of the third set, she was in control of the rallies, both on her serve and on Pera’s. Maybe the biggest surprise, for long-time Serena watchers, is that the third set wasn’t 6-0.

Serena said she was glad to play three sets, and aside from her early sluggishness, she seemed physically ready despite the time off. A month short of her 39th birthday, she doesn’t seem to have lost any pace on her serve or her ground strokes. Now she’ll need to recover and be ready for her second-round, where she’ll play either her sister Venus.

Can a Houdini act also be pretty much what we were expecting? In Serena’s case, and maybe only in Serena’s case, the answer is yes.