Across the tennis landscape, upstarts are tweaking the noses of their betters. On day two of the 2020 French Open, it briefly was the turn of the three‑time champion Serena Williams, who had to wrestle with the ingenious challenge of her compatriot, Kristie Ahn, before moving into the second round with much of her old swagger.
Williams has lost once in the first round of a slam – in this tournament against Virginie Razzano, ranked 111 at the time, eight years ago. She was not in the mood for a reprise.
Determinedly ignoring her pursuit of Margaret Court’s record of 24 majors, she prevailed, 7-6 (2), 6-0, although there were anxious moments in the first hour before she got Ahn’s measure to finish the job with a bagel.
It is the best Williams has looked for a while. Ahn, who lost to Williams in the first round of the US Open, clearly fancied her chances before the challenge turned into a chore.
Mats Wilander, whose observations elsewhere this tournament have grabbed a lot of headlines, said: “What we need to remember is that it’s not the 23 grand slam titles she has won or the 24th that she is searching for. Serena Williams loves to compete and hates to lose. She is maybe the greatest competitor on a tennis court, ever.”
Williams hit 11 aces but five double faults and was broken twice by a player 10 places higher in the rankings than was Razzano in 2012. Once she found a rhythm on the heavy clay, however, Williams looked her old self – which she knows gets older by the day.
She turned 39 last Saturday and at least next plays someone closer to her own age in the 33‑year‑old Tsvetana Pironkova, ranked 156 in the world but good enough to reach the quarter-finals here four years ago (in similarly wintry conditions) and, in her pomp, the 2010 Wimbledon semi-finals.
More relevantly, Pironkova gave Williams a serious fright in the quarter‑finals of the recent US Open after Ahn had softened her up in round one. She was given a wildcard here and repaid the tournament’s faith by beating Andrea Petkovic, 6-3, 6-3 in an hour-and-a-quarter on Court No 4.
“I still have my rhythm from the US Open,” she said. “Every match is different, that is for sure. I didn’t see the draw initially. I never do. I only see the first round. But I was told later that I would play Serena if I win. It’s always exciting to face her, especially after our last match.”
Williams said: “I’m OK with it. She’s playing well, but I am too. I’m ready to play her. She’ll be ready to play me. It will be a long match. She will get a lot of balls back, but I’ll be ready.”
Asked about her pursuit of Court’s all-time record and Rafa Nadal closing in on the 20 major titles owned by Roger Federer, Williams looked disinterested. “I don’t get involved in ‘the greatest’ talk,” she said. “The greatest for me is and will always be Jesus.”
Hard to top that one, whatever your ranking.