Serena Williams back with a bang at Roland Garros

American beats Kristyna Pliskova in her return after giving birth to her daughter

Serena Williams of the USA in action against Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic during their women’s first round match at the French Open. Photo: Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA

Serena Williams of the USA in action against Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic during their women’s first round match at the French Open. Photo: Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA

 

In her first Grand Slam match in nearly 16 months, Serena Williams defeated Kristyna Pliskova, 7-6 (4), 6-4, in the first round of the French Open on Tuesday.

Much has changed in Williams’s life since she last played on one of the game’s biggest stages, winning the 2017 Australian Open.

She is now married and the mother of an infant daughter. Ranked No1 when she left the game, she arrived at Roland Garros as an unseeded player after playing only four singles matches on tour this season.

But her desire for more tennis success was palpable on Tuesday, as was her desire to make a strong sartorial impression. She took to the red clay on the Philippe Chatrier Court in a form-fitting black bodysuit that was reminiscent of the black catsuit she wore at the 2002 United States Open, which she won en route to four major singles titles in a row.

After losing to her sister Venus Williams in the third round at the BNP Paribas Open and to Naomi Osaka in the first round of the Miami Open earlier this year, Williams chose to focus on training instead of playing more tournaments. She traveled to southern France in April with her daughter, Olympia, in tow to train at the academy operated by her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.

Despite initially planning to play clay-court events in Madrid and Rome, Williams withdrew from those tournaments and arrived in Paris having not played a competitive clay-court match since the final of the 2016 French Open.

But she showed flashes of fine form in her straight-set but hardly straightforward victory over Pliskova, the unseeded and left-handed twin sister of Karolina Pliskova, the No6 seed here.

“Two years has been a really long time,” Williams, 36, said in her on-court interview on Tuesday. “But I trained really hard on the clay, and I feel good, and I’m just happy to have won a match here. And I just take it a day at a time.”

Williams will face Ash Barty of Australia, the No17 seed, in the second round, which will be scheduled for Thursday.

“Just what an opportunity,” said Barty, who lost, 6-2, 6-1, to Williams in their only previous meeting, in the first round of the 2014 Australian Open. “She’s a genuine champion, and what she’s done to be able to get back along with Vika Azarenka and a lot of the other girls coming back from pregnancy is a pretty amazing thing.”

Recovery will be paramount for Williams, who has played so little competitive tennis of late.

“I imagine she’s going to be quite sore with all the changes of direction and getting used to the surface,” said Sarah Pitkowski-Malcor, a former French professional, who was watching from courtside on Tuesday.

The duel with Barty, a stocky and gifted shotmaker with very quick feet and hands, will be a different challenge than facing Pliskova, who is 6” 1’ and, like her better-known sister, has one of the best and biggest first serves on tour.

Pliskova served 15 aces, the most hit against Williams since the WTA began keeping statistics in 2008. Williams had 13 of her own along with seven double faults, three of which came in a single game in the second set.

If this had been Williams at her peak, that would have been cause for concern, but Tuesday’s victory was much more reassuring than unsettling in light of her performances earlier this year. She looked stronger, fitter and quicker to defend in the corners than she did in Indian Wells or Miami.

“She was moving quite okay.,” Pliskova said. “I expected a little bit she would be worse, and we both served pretty well, so there was no rhythm in the match, which was also tough. I had some chances in the match I didn’t use.”

Williams is clearly a very dangerous floater in the women’s draw.

Asked whether Williams should have been seeded, Barty said that was “an extremely tough question.”

“Probably in certain ways yes, and I agree with those arguments, and I also agree with the argument that it’s no,” she said. “It’s a tough decision. I know the WTA is going through the right process.” – New York Times service

Sharapova turns it around

Meanwhile, Maria Sharapova lost six games in a row and then won the next six as she got her return to Roland Garros off to a successful start.

Sharapova plays a forehand during her win over Richel Hogenkamp. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Sharapova plays a forehand during her win over Richel Hogenkamp. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The Russian appeared to be cruising at 6-1 3-1 ahead but Holland’s Richel Hogenkamp suddenly had her on the ropes, taking the second set and racing 3-0 ahead in the decider.

But Sharapova rediscovered her game in the nick of time to reel off half a dozen games for a 6-1 4-6 6-3 victory.

It was an ultimately sweet moment for the two-time Paris champion.

This time last year Sharapova had recently returned from a 15-month doping ban, but had not built her ranking high enough to qualify and was not offered a wild card.

But 12 months later Sharapova is back in the world’s top 30, seeded 28 at Roland Garros and a potential challenger for a third title.

Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza got the better of Svetlana Kuznetsova in a first-round meeting of two former champions.

After a 90-minute rain interruption at 5-5 in the first set Muguruza, the 2016 winner, blew 2009 champion Kuznetsova away in the tie-break and went on to win 7-6 (7/0) 6-2.

Caroline Garcia of France, the seventh seed, took just 58 minutes to dispatch China’s Yingying Duan 6-1 6-0.

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