Was there ever any doubt?
Was there ever any doubt that Serena Williams was going to bring her A-game in her return to Arthur Ashe Stadium Monday night?
Was there ever any doubt 352 nights after one of her worst nights as a tennis player that she was going to do everything possible to put that memory behind her?
If there was, it was dashed in less than an hour. It took Williams just 59 minutes to defeat a fading Maria Sharapova, 6-1, 6-1, in her first round match at the U.S. Open.
The match was Williams’ first back at Ashe since last year’s controversial final when she lost to Naomi Osaka after receiving three code-of-conduct violations.
This time, there were no boos and tears. Just a smiling and gracious Williams, who made a point of thanking fans after the match in a comment that somewhat obliquely referred to last year’s controversial final.
“I’ve had a lot of tough matches and a lot of tough losses,” the 37-year-old Williams said, “but coming out tonight makes it all worthwhile.”
Williams would later say that the buzz from the crowd as she walked onto the court really pumped her up to play.
“I could hear them walking down the hallway,” she said. “It was such a good feeling. It helped me get amped up and pumped up.”
There’s no doubt that Williams wants a do-over, that she wants to get back to the final this year and this time win. What could be more perfect than to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam wins here, to post one of her career’s biggest triumphs in a place that was also the scene of one of her greatest disappointments?
You couldn’t have invented a better first-round opponent for Williams, the No. 8 seed. Sharapova, 32, has struggled with injuries since coming back from a doping suspension and was ranked 87th in the world. This marked the first time that the two players had played each other before the round of 16.
Yet there was enough history and back story to the matchup to make it one of the more interesting first-round pairings in recent memory.
Though this was their first meeting in the U.S. Open, the two had played 21 previous times with Williams having won the last 18 matches.
Still, according to Sharapova, a rivalry was born early in her career when the then 17-year-od stunned Williams by beating her in the 2004 Wimbledon final.
In her autobiography, “Unstoppable: My Life So Far,” Sharapova detailed how she had heard Williams crying in the locker room after the loss.
“I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds at Wimbledon,” she wrote. “I think she hated me for seeing her at her lowest moment. But mostly I think she hated me for hearing her cry. She’s never forgiven me for it.”
On Monday night, the only one unstoppable was Williams, who controlled every aspect of the match.
Williams broke Sharapova twice in the first set and cruised to a 6-1 win. She won 85 percent of her first-service points and committed just three unforced errors in the set.
She then opened the second set by breaking Sharapova. Any chance Sharapova had of climbing back was dashed when she failed to capitalize on two break points in the fourth game.
Williams smiled as she walked off the court this time. She was a winner in New York again. The question remains whether she can win her next six matches here and take care of some unfinished business.