<
>

Serena doesn't lose a step in Aussie debut

MELBOURNE -- Serena Williams might not have played in any tournaments since her U.S. Open loss, but that is not to say it was an uneventful past four months for her. She was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year, the first woman to do so on an individual basis since 1983.

She might have received even more attention, however, for chasing down and catching the thief who swiped her cell phone at a San Francisco restaurant.

"I didn't think it would be such a big story," Williams said. "I thought I just would post it on Facebook because it was fun. I didn't know it would be everywhere, every blog, every TV channel and every radio station. People were calling me. My dad was worried. I just had no idea it would blow up like that.

"I reacted and I didn't think. It was just like, sometimes athletes just react. But I was really nice about it. He was really nice about it. It worked out."

Williams said that she hasn't received any crime-fighting job offers since then but she is hopeful of landing an action role, perhaps "as a super hero."

Well, if so, any super villains probably would be wise to avoid fighting Serena on the court, especially at a Grand Slam. She is 34-1 in majors since the 2014 US Open -- losing only to Roberta Vinci in the semifinals at last year's US Open to end her quest for a Calendar Slam -- including her return to action Monday in the first round of the Australian Open. Playing in 90-plus degree heat for 1 hour, 45 minutes, she beat 36th-ranked Camila Giorgi in straight sets 6-4, 7-5.

"It wasn't very easy," Williams said. "She obviously plays really well and knows how to hit her shots. I haven't played in a competitive match in a really long time but I think it was really good for me to come out here and get through it. It wasn't quick but that works to my advantage as well. I was able to stay in it and stay calm today, and I think that's what matters most. I'm happy to be back out there."

At 34, Serena is the oldest No. 1-ranked player in WTA history. And getting older isn't easy if you aren't a superhero, especially in tennis. Over the winter, her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said Williams has almost no cartilage remaining in her knees. She withdrew from the Hopman Cup earlier this month due to inflammation in her left knee but said it is fine now.

All that raised concerns that perhaps the greatest woman player in tennis history is going to have a tough go of it this year as she attempts to match Steffi Graf for the most major titles in the Open era. She is a six-time winner here but even so, the oddsmakers have not made her an overwhelming favorite -- at 3.5-1, she is only slightly ahead of two-time Aussie champ Victoria Azarenka (4-1).

Nonetheless, she says the long break she took to rest and recover after the US Open helped her a lot.

"I think I just needed a break," she said. "I have been going nonstop since the 2012 Olympics in London, and seeing that this is another Olympic year, I kind of wanted to start the year out really fresh and really go at it again as hard as I can. I just needed that time to just recover the best of my ability and get really fit, you know, and really train and get ready for the season."

Serena has been through a long layoff before so it wasn't exactly overwhelming for her to take the court again after the four-month break Monday. She said she was thinking, "OK, I haven't played in a long time, but I have been playing for 30 years, so I try to focus on that. You know, sometimes it's hard, because definitely tennis is a sport where you need those matches. But I just try to just focus on whatever I can, the positives."

Williams fought through many three-set matches in 2015 and while this one went only two sets, it was definitely a challenge. Giorgi won the first game in each set, and the Italian turned the second set into a nail-biter that was tied 5-5 before Serena broke her serve in the 11th game to take a 6-5 lead. She then overwhelmed Giorgi in the final game to win the match with her ninth ace.

Serena gave herself an A for effort. "I think I served well today,'' Williams said. "I got broken once, but other than that, I was able to stay focused on that part.''

Williams plays 30-year-old Su-Wei Hsieh in the second round Wednesday. Currently ranked 90th, Hsieh will need her A game and perhaps some kryptonite. And while she'll try to steal Serena's thunder, she better not grab her cell phone.