In her opener at this year’s U.S. Open, Serena Williams spent half an hour on court and didn’t lose a single game against a hobbling Vitalia Diatchenko.
Wednesday’s outing versus Kiki Bertens in New York was more indicative of the way things have gone for the American at grand slams in 2015: She toiled for a large chunk of the late afternoon contest.
As she has done at the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, however, the undisputed world No. 1 prevailed to move within five matches of becoming the first player since Steffi Graf 27 years ago to complete the calendar-year grand slam.
The 7-6 (5) 6-3 result as the hot weather persisted in the Big Apple was indeed as close as the score suggested.
Bertens, a qualifier ranked 110th, had never defeated a top-10 player in her career but owned a 17-2 record when representing the Netherlands in the Fed Cup. With the overwhelming majority of those assembled on Arthur Ashe stadium rooting for Williams, the atmosphere resembled the partisan environment often encountered in women’s tennis’ most prestigious team competition.
And with Williams admittedly nervous ahead of the match, an on-song Bertens broke early. Not closing out the set serving at 5-4 did little to dampen the 23-year-old’s spirits, as she raced to a 4-0 advantage in the tiebreak.
Cue the Williams comeback. Another one this year.
“I think being down a lot, I know I can try to make a comeback,” Williams, the three-time defending U.S. Open champion, told the crowd. “Plus, I never stop.
“It doesn’t worry me.”
But even the most optimistic of Williams supporters had to have been concerned in the tiebreak as the first four points went to the underdog.
After Williams forced an error and happily watched Bertens strike two unforced errors to make it 4-3, the turning point might have come next. Bertens crushed a second-serve return, only for Williams to scamper and manage to keep her reply in play. Bertens then erred on a forehand for 4-4 and things were slipping away.
She tossed her racket in disgust after a net-cord contributed to a forehand error on set point.
Williams thus stole the set – and realistically ended the contest – despite tallying 26 unforced errors and eight double faults, including four in the 11th game.
The 33-year-old next faces countrywoman Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who eased past CoCo Vandeweghe 6-2 6-1 one round after Vandeweghe, a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, upset Sloane Stephens.
Unable to contain her frustration, Vandeweghe destroyed her racket in the first set Wednesday.
Also advancing to the third round was Eugenie Bouchard.
Bouchard turned to retired great Jimmy Connors in an effort to end her alarming skid and the move seems to be paying off. When the 2014 Wimbledon finalist edged Polona Hercog 6-3 6-7 (2) 6-3, it marked the first time since March the Canadian won back-to-back matches. Bouchard originally failed to serve out the affair in the second set.
Her next foe is Dominika Cibulkova, like the 21-year-old a grand slam finalist last year who is seeking to rediscover top form.
In men’s play, slumping two-time champion Rafael Nadal overcame Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman 7-6 (5) 6-3 7-5, although he may have played better in the first round against Borna Coric even after needing four sets to progress.
Elsewhere, defending champion Marin Cilic downed Evgeny Donskoy 6-2 6-3 7-5; Bouchard’s fellow Canadian Milos Raonic, ranked 10th, overcame back troubles to defeat Fernando Verdasco 6-2 6-4 6-7 (5) 7-6 (1); and David Ferrer – a longtime member of the top 10 – beat Filip Krajinovic 7-5 7-5 7-6 (4) in his first tournament since June.
Mardy Fish, a former top-10 player, contested the last match of his career, losing to Feliciano Lopez 2-6 6-3 1-6 7-5 6-3. Fish, hindered by heart issues and anxiety in recent years, succumbed to cramps in the fifth set after relinquishing a 5-4 lead, with a break, in the fourth.
“I have got a lot of great memories,” Fish told reporters. “I’ve got a lot of good wins out here. I have made a lot of really good friendships with almost everyone out here. I’ll miss that.
“And then the health stuff, I’m just trying to help any way I can and share my story. If it helps other people, that’s great.”