The last time Serena Williams had played at Arthur Ashe Stadium — a dramatic loss to Naomi Osaka in the 2018 US Open final — it led her to start seeing a therapist and kept her from wanting to pick up a tennis racket.
It’s a story that’s been retold often: A year ago, a then-20-year-old Naomi Osaka had prevailed against her idol 6-2, 6-4 in New York to win her first major, but it was overshadowed by controversy. Serena Williams clashed with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, culminating when he docked her a game for calling him a “thief.” After the match, while Osaka accepted the trophy, boos rang around Arthur Ashe Stadium. Osaka wept.
The mood Monday felt much different.
A laser-focused Serena Williams entered the stadium to roars from the crowd. The 37-year-old American’s opponent was a familiar one in five-time grand slam champion Maria Sharapova — though remarkably the two previously had never faced each other at Flushing Meadows. This didn’t have the feel of a US Open first-round match.
The results were also the same as the last 15 years: Serena Williams, seeded eighth, won 6-1, 6-1 in less than an hour, improving her record against the Russian to 20-2 as she seeks her 24th major title.
After the match, Serena Williams addressed the crowd during her interview with ESPN.
“Thank you for supporting me,” she said. “I’ve said it once, but I’ve had a lot of tough matches here and a lot of tough losses, but coming out tonight makes it all worthwhile.”
Sharapova, 32, who has been plagued by injuries this year, was ranked 87th heading into the US Open. She now will fall out of the top 100.
“This is a very different chapter in my career,” Sharapova said.
“It’s not an easy road. It’s never been. But I went through a shoulder procedure about four months ago. To find myself playing at a night match at the US Open with people excited about the matchup, it’s a pretty big deal. I’m fortunate to be a part of that.
“It’s easy to be discouraged after a match like this. But if I’m personally discouraged, I wake up tomorrow, I don’t feel like I want to go out, train, be better, that’s more discouraging than the result.”
The match highlighted a blockbuster start to the final major of the tennis season that had eight former US Open champions playing on Monday.
Venus Williams, Djokovic, Federer win
One of those former champions is Venus Williams, who dominated China’s Zheng Saisai 6-1, 6-0. The American is now 21-0 in the first round of the US Open in her storied career. At 39 years old, she is the oldest player in the women’s singles draw by 24 years; Coco Gauff is the youngest at 15.
“I love, love, love my job,” Venus Williams said to ESPN on court. “I get to work outside. My whole job is to stay fit and get a six pack. You don’t get better than that. I love what I do, and I’ll do it as long as a I can.” She will face No. 5 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine in the second round.
Novak Djokovic, aiming to be the first man to win back-to-back titles at the US Open since Roger Federer in 2008, started his title defense Monday with a 6-4, 6-1, 6-4 win over Roberto Carballes Baena of Spain. The win improves Djokovic’s first-round record at the US Open to 14-0. The Serbian is now 34-1 in his last 35 matches at grand slam tournaments.
“It was a solid performance,” Djokovic said. “I think I can still play better, but it’s kind of expected for the first match and then, you know, I’m hoping that I can build from here.”
While Federer is one of the favorites, the third-seeded Swiss hasn’t won this grand slam event in 11 years. And while Federer and Rafael Nadal have never faced each other in a US Open, the 20-time major champion now has faced a Nagal. That would be Sumit Nagal of India, a qualifier ranked 190th who has never won a tour-level match. After a hiccup in losing the first set, Federer went on to win 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. His first-round record at the US Open now stands at 19-0.
“It was a tough first set for me because I had the lead so things were looking good for me, but (Nagal) came back and played very strong,” Federer, who finished with 57 unforced errors, said to ESPN. “Credit to him to really play a solid first set. I was missing a lot of balls and I was trying to cut back on the unforced errors and hopefully serve a bit better because that also let me down. It all came back just in time. At the end, I actually played good tennis, so I’m happy.”
Barty, Pliskova survive 1st-round matches to advance
There was almost a big surprise to begin the US Open in the women’s singles draw. But crisis was averted, and the chase for the world No. 1 ranking is underway.
No. 2 Ashleigh Barty overcame a dreadful start, bouncing back after being down a set, to defeat No. 80 Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan 1-6, 6-3, 6-2. The Australian is one of three women, joining No. 3 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic and No. 4 Simona Halep of Romania, in contention to regain the world No. 1 ranking, which is currently held by Osaka.
Barty, the French Open champion, is the frontrunner, trailing Osaka by just 105 points. She held the top spot for seven weeks earlier this summer.
“Not the ideal start, not the perfect start, but it is what it is,” Barty, who had 36 unforced errors in the match, said. “We were able to find a way after that to get into the match and be more patient and really just kind of lock down and wait until I got the right balls and right patterns that I wanted.
“That was probably the biggest change in the second and third is I was able to get more of those patterns more regularly and in the end build pressure to create more opportunities to break.”
Meanwhile, Pliskova, who needs to reach at least the quarterfinals to have a chance at claiming the top spot, survived two tiebreaks against fellow Czech Tereza Martincova, who is ranked 138th, to advance to the second round.
“Not perfect, but I’m through so that’s important,” Pliskova said. “Of course, as I said before, the first rounds they are always a little bit nervous, I would say, for most of the players. Doesn’t help that you play somebody from your country, because then it adds some extra nerves.”
Osaka must defend her title to maintain the No. 1 ranking. She will play Russian Anna Blinkova on Tuesday.