For a tennis superstar like Serena Williams, early round matches at a Grand Slam often feel like dress rehearsals.
The six-time U.S. Open women’s singles champion’s second-round opponent in Flushing Meadows is 17-year-old American Caty McNally in what will be their first meeting. McNally hadn’t even been born when Williams won her first U.S. Open title, 20 years ago. In Williams’ favorable quarter of the draw, it’s likely she won’t see another opponent she’s played more than once before until the quarterfinals.
That’s why it felt crucial for Williams to get her adrenaline pumping in a decisive 6-1, 6-1 first-round victory Monday against rival and five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova.
“I sometimes tend to start slow,” Williams said. “It actually almost helps me. It’s good to have tough matches.”
Under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Williams sported a Nike-branded boxing robe for warmups and brought a fighter’s mentality onto the hardcourt. Choosing to serve first, Williams let out a burst of emotion after holding the first game. Her intensity and the sold-out stadium backing her every point gave opening night the feel of the later stages of the tournament.
“I could hear [the crowd] walking down the hallway,” Williams said after the match. “It made me feel unbelievable and really helped me get amped up and pumped up.”
Williams fed off the crowd’s energy to overwhelm a hobbled Sharapova in their first-ever meeting at the U.S. Open. It was Williams’ 19th consecutive victory over the 32-year-old Russian star, who continues to struggle with injuries since returning two years ago from a 15-month doping suspension.
Though Williams hasn’t played much herself this summer, and was forced to retire in the Toronto final due to back pain, she spoke on court after the match about how the early draw upped her rigorous training and focus for the tournament. After all, she has a standard to uphold, reaching either the semifinals or finals in her last nine U.S. Open appearances.