Williams kicks off campaign on right foot

Three-time champion's quest for record-tying 24th Grand Slam title off to winning start against Ahn

Serena Williams, Roland Garros 2020, first round© Julien Crosnier/FFT
 - Ravi Ubha

Even the best who have played the game struggle with confidence.

That includes Serena Williams, who won a marathon first set before easing to a 7-6 (2), 6-0 win over familiar foe Kristie Ahn at Roland-Garros on Monday in her first match on clay this season.

Williams’ level sharply rose in the second set against her fellow American and when the 23-time Grand Slam winner was asked why, she admitted her self-belief slightly lacked at the start.

“The biggest difference was just confidence,” she said. “I just need to play with more confidence, like I'm Serena.

“So that was it. I just started playing like that. And I love the clay and I started playing like it, opening the court and moving and sliding. I do think her level dropped a little bit in the beginning of the (second) set and I took advantage of that.”

For many players, having that precious confidence dovetails with being fit. Williams suffered an Achilles injury in her dramatic semi-final against fellow mum Victoria Azarenka at the US Open and subsequently pulled out of the Italian Open in Rome, one of her favourite cities.

She admits she has been constantly rehabilitating her body, starting at her coach Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy near Nice, France.

“I'm doing so much for it [the body],” said Williams, who turned 39 over the weekend. “I did so much for it at Patrick's academy. So one of the reasons I came into press a little bit earlier than normal, because I need to get back and start the protocol all over again. So just kind of just rehab that, laser, ice, just a lot, a lot of stuff on it."

When Williams met the 102nd-ranked Ahn in the same round at the US Open, she had to summon one of her famous big serves to save a break point at 4-4 in the first set before relaxing and ultimately easing to the finish line.

Her situation in the opening set on Monday was even more precarious in a chilly, cloudy City of Light. Williams hit three double faults and was broken on Ahn’s sixth chance in a third game that lasted an elongated 13 minutes.

Playing on clay did little to alter Ahn’s tactic of going for her returns with her flat forehand on her tournament debut. But Williams broke back for 4-4, also capitalising on her sixth break point in the game.

Serena Williams, Roland-Garros 2020, entraînement, court Philippe-Chatrier©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

A roar came when Williams authored a superb backhand yet that was far from the end of the tale. Williams, surprisingly, was broken to love to trail 5-4. Perhaps at that instant some flashed back to 2012 at Roland-Garros, the lone occasion Williams has lost at the first hurdle of a major in her glittering four-decade career. 

Yet those thoughts likely quickly evaporated as Williams emphatically broke back for 5-5. Ahn commendably forced a tie-break but Williams did not make a single unforced error after delivering 28 in the first 12 games.

Ahn missed her opportunity and somewhat predictably, the 74-minute first set gave way to a 27-minute second.

It will be another familiar opponent for Williams next in Tsvetana Pironkova as she continues her chase for Margaret Court’s Grand Slam record.  The comeback Bulgarian — a mum, too — stretched Williams to three sets in an absorbing quarter-final in New York.

“She's playing well, but I am too,” said Williams. “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. I’ll be ready.”