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Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Strong start for Serena, but how far can she go?

By Viv Bernstein

The only 30-year-old woman to win the Australian Open in the Open era was Margaret Court back in 1973, a reminder that tennis remains a game for the young. Can Serena Williams be the one to finally defy that convention?

Four months after turning 30, Williams remains one of the favorites to win the Australian Open. Despite entering the first Grand Slam of the season as the 12th seed after missing much of last season to injury and ailments, Williams got off to a promising start with a 6-3, 6-2 first-round victory against 45th-ranked Tamira Paszek of Austria in a match that ended early Wednesday morning at Rod Laver Arena.

It was a display that showed Serena is still Serena, the dominating figure in a sport that has yet to produce a clear heir apparent. Yet you have to wonder how menacing her presence can be these days deep into a draw. She's not ageless; she's not immune to injury. And, as Williams said recently, she doesn't love tennis every day. It is no longer assumed she will step onto a court and own it to the finish the way she used to, whether she's sufficiently motivated or not.

We saw that at the U.S. Open this past September shortly before that demarcating 30th birthday. Williams looked as though she would steamroll her way to the title, reasserting her place atop the sport. Even as her sister Venus was forced to withdraw after revealing she suffered from the debilitating Sjogren's syndrome, Serena remained focused and fearsome. She didn't surrender a set, dismissing premier players from Victoria Azarenka to top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki along the way.

That was until Williams reached the final to face Australian Samantha Stosur, a tour veteran who had never won a Grand Slam title in 12 years as a pro. Williams embarrassed herself with a temper tantrum on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court after being penalized for shouting during a point and was plainly outplayed by Stosur, 6-2, 6-3. (Yes, it was the same Stosur who bowed out of the Australian Open in the first round Tuesday.)

Serena Williams
Serena Williams' first-round match was just her third since reaching the U.S. Open final last September.

It was the last we saw of Williams for a while. She skipped the Asian tour swing in the fall, played a few exhibitions and managed just two matches in her first tournament of the new year at Brisbane before rolling her left ankle late in a second-round match against Bojana Jovanovski. (Serena won the match but withdrew from the tournament.)

Although enough photos of her bared midriff and muscled abs were taken during practice sessions this week to believe that she at least showed up physically fit, Williams' readiness for the task at the Australian Open is hard to measure. She hasn't played enough to know the state of her game or that rolled ankle. Williams showed up for the match against Paszek with both ankles heavily taped and more tape going up her left calf, as well. She didn't appear to have any issues with the ankle, although it remains to be seen whether there will be swelling before the second round, when she faces Barbora Zahlavova Strycova.

In the opener, Williams broke Paszek in the eighth game of the first set for a 5-3 lead, then put away the set with a forehand smash in the next game. The second set, just like the first, featured some long rallies, moments of frustration and a wicked forehand winner or two. Williams broke Paszek's serve again in the fifth game of the second set for a 3-2 lead and followed with four consecutive aces to go up 4-2. Paszek was done.

Williams broke Paszek's serve again and then served out the match for her first victory in the Australian Open since winning the 2010 final. (Williams sat out last year because of a serious cut on her foot that required surgery, one of a series of ailments that kept her off the court until shortly before Wimbledon.) With the win over Paszek, Williams extended her Australian Open winning streak to 15 matches, including consecutive titles in 2009 and 2010.

"I haven't been here in over a year, so I was a little nervous today, but thank you for getting me through it," Williams told the crowd after the match.

If seeds hold out, Williams could play No. 17 Dominika Cibulkova in the third round, No. 7 Vera Zvonareva in the fourth, No. 4 Maria Sharapova in the quarters and reigning Wimbledon champion, No. 2 seed Petra Kvitova, in the semis. But we're a long way from that. And if Williams' ankle is sound, it will be her mettle that determines how far she advances here.

No matter what Williams accomplishes in Melbourne, she no doubt will remain a factor each time a Grand Slam rolls around this year, and beyond (she recently tweeted that she plans to play in 2013), but this year's Australian Open will be an early guide to how much of a factor she can be at 30.

Is she the Serena of old, or just an old Serena? We'll see.