This is comeback time for everyone in tennis, and Serena Williams pushed the theme to the extreme on Tuesday.
In her first match in six months, and the first since the coronavirus pandemic began, Williams lost the first set to unseeded Bernarda Pera at the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., and found herself down, 0-40, on her serve at 4-4 in the second.
But Pera, a left-hander who was raised in Croatia and now represents the United States, never got the chance to serve for the match.
There was no crowd to lift Williams. The tournament is being played without spectators, with the sounds of passing traffic, including the occasional cement mixer, replacing the roars and groans of a crowd.
Instead of feeding off the buzz, Williams had to feed off her championship past, bringing the thunder with her first serve and forehand when she needed it most.
She saved four break points to hold serve, scrapped into the corners to win the set by breaking Pera in the next game, and then tapped the accelerator pedal to close out a 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 first-round victory that was every bit as taxing as it sounds.
She is rusty, no doubt, but still resilient. If Williams thought she had seen and heard it all in tennis at age 38, 2020 has given her a new landscape and a new set of challenges.
“It was a really calm atmosphere; it was really chill,” Williams said of the empty stadium. “I can’t say I disliked it at all. I kind of didn’t mind it. I’ve been through so many things in my career. So this was totally different. I think I won today because I was calm for once in my career.”
That is a stretch, of course. Williams is often at her most irresistible when she keeps her emotions in check and focuses on the task at hand. (See her repeated in-the-zone demolitions of the now-retired Maria Sharapova.)
But Pera, a flat hitter ranked No. 60 with no apparent fear of Williams’s pace, gave her plenty of reason to feel less than serene. She slapped angled winners with little warning to finish off high-velocity exchanges and kept Williams off-balance with her left-handed serve. Williams even took a tumble at one stage as she tried to shift direction.
“I knew I was needing to do better; I knew I could do better,” Williams said. “And it was an interesting game. She hit so many winners and so low. I just kind of had to get used to her game a little bit.”
No active player in women’s tennis has rallied to win after losing the opening set more often than Williams. She has a winning record in such matches in the last 10 years, but winning this one required her to lift to a higher plane in a hurry.
Down, 4-4 and 0-40, she saved the first break point with a big first serve, saved the second with a huge forehand winner down the line, saved the third with a fully ripped backhand that clipped the back of the baseline and saved a fourth later in the game with another first serve that Pera could not handle.
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“That 0-40 and how she got it back is a sign for better tennis on the horizon,” said Sven Groeneveld, the veteran coach who has worked with Sharapova and Sloane Stephens and who was watching Williams from afar on Tuesday. “Serena needs more matches to get in her flow, but the big serve is always there for the rescue. Had she lost this match it might have derailed her for a bit, but let’s see if she can grow into the tournament.”
Her second-round match will come Thursday against her sister Venus Williams, who defeated Victoria Azarenka, 6-3, 6-2. It will be their 31st meeting, with Serena holding an 18-12 edge.
The Top Seed Open, a new event that replaced the Citi Open women’s tournament on the calendar this year, has quite a field for a low-level tour stop. It includes Coco Gauff, now 16, who made her own successful return to the tour with a tough 7-5, 7-5 victory over Caroline Dolehide. It was Gauff’s first match since losing to the eventual champion, Sofia Kenin, in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January.
Before the pandemic, the focus was on the age restrictions that kept Gauff from playing a full slate of tournaments as a teenager. But after a five-month hiatus, such restrictions are no longer an issue. The challenge is finding enough tournaments for anyone to play.
The players here will travel next to New York City to play the Western & Southern Open and the United States Open, which because of scheduling changes caused by the coronavirus will be played back to back at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens.
Playing in an empty temporary stadium in a private Kentucky club will not be quite the same as playing in an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium, with a capacity of more than 23,000.
“I think being in New York will be a little different because there’s this like massive stadium,” Serena Williams said. “So I’ll kind of probably have to see how that is. But this is like a solo court. It’s small. This kind of reminds me of the junior days. So there was something kind of nostalgic about that.”
Pera, who is still trying to establish herself at the highest level at age 25, is certainly more accustomed to small crowds and Off Broadway venues.
But Williams found a way to adjust to the mix of nostalgia and novelty.
After delaying the start of Tuesday’s match to have her ankles retaped, she bid farewell to her 2-year-old daughter, Olympia, and husband, Alexis Ohanian, and walked on court for the first time in her career wearing a mask (she took it off before the warm-up).
After winning the toss, she had to choose not only whether to serve or receive serve, but also what color hook she would use to hang her towel behind each baseline. The ball boys and girls are no longer allowed to handle player towels.
After winning the final nine points to close out the match, Williams walked forward and stopped well short of the net, raising her racket and waving her left hand to acknowledge Pera rather than go closer and tap rackets, a gesture that has replaced the postmatch handshake.
It is a new tennis world indeed, and there are absolutely no guarantees that more Grand Slam titles await Williams. She has been chasing her 24th without success since returning from pregnancy in 2018, and as Pera’s punches and counterpunches amid the silence made clear, more and more players can handle Williams’s power.
But Williams looked fit and eager again on Tuesday as she proved that she still knows how to win when she is not yet at her best.