Serena Williams’ quest for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam got off the mark as Andy Murray rolled back the years with a vintage comeback at the US Open Tuesday.
Six-time winner Williams powered past 96th-ranked Kristie Ahn after Murray came from two sets down to win a five-set thriller in his first singles Slam match in 18 months.
US Open day two
The pair both progressed to the second round on day two of a US Open that is unrecognizable from previous tournaments, without spectators and with stringent measures to prevent Covid-19 infections.
Williams defeated Ahn 7-5, 6-3 as she started the latest bid of her protracted pursuit to match Margaret Court’s Grand Slam title with a straight-sets win at Flushing Meadows.
The 38-year-old overcame the loss of her first service game in the opening set to advance at a virtually empty Arthur Ashe Stadium, where artwork by black artists is displayed in honor of the Black Lives Matter movement against racial injustice.
“I was really happy with how I just fought for every point no matter how I was playing,” said Williams.
It has been more than three years since Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam title at the 2017 Australian Open — when she was already pregnant with daughter Olympia.
She has come close since, reaching four major finals only to come away empty-handed, but should have a better chance this time around with several top players absent because of coronavirus concerns or injury.
World number one Ashleigh Barty, the second-ranked Simona Halep and Canadian Bianca Andreescu — who stunned Williams in last year’s final — are all absent from the behind-closed-doors tournament.
A title win for Williams would also see her become the most decorated women’s player at the US Open in the modern era. She is currently tied with Chris Evert on six.
Murray secured a stunning 4-6, 4-6, 7-6 (7/5), 7-6 (7/4), 6-4 come-from-behind victory in a bruising 4 hr and 39 min encounter against Japan’s 49th-ranked Yoshihito Nishioka.
The Scotsman, who who has barely played in 2020, said he had learnt a lot about his physical condition and the metal hip he received during surgery last year.
“I’ve just played a four-and-a-half hour match when I never thought I’d be able to,” he told reporters.
“I’m not sitting here with my hip throbbing and aching. I’ll be able to sleep fine tonight,” Murray added.
Tenth seed Garbine Muguruza, the 2016 French Open champion and 2017 Wimbledon winner, advanced to round two with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Japan’s Nao Havino.
She dedicated the win to compatriot Carla Suarez Navarro, who revealed Tuesday that she had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and will require six months of chemotherapy.
“You know, she’s such a nice woman, so sweet, so kind, so humble. When these things happen to these good people, I feel, like, so sad about it,” said Muguruza.
Also in the women’s draw, second seed American Sofia Kenin needed just over an hour to score a 6-2, 6-2 win over unseeded Belgian Yanina Wickmayer at Louis Armstrong Stadium.
And ninth seed Johanna Konta beat compatriot Heather Watson 7-6 (9/7), 6-1 in a tie dubbed the “Battle of Britain.”
There was disappointment for 40-year-old Venus Williams though who bowed out in the first round for the first time in her career, losing in straight sets to Karolina Muchova.
Another veteran, Belgium’s 37-year-old Kim Clijsters, also fell at the first hurdle.
Clijsters making a comeback for the second time in her career and playing in her first Grand Slam draw since 2012, was beaten in three sets by Ekaterina Alexandrova, losing 3-6, 7-5, 6-1.
In the men’s competition, number two seed Dominic Thiem progressed to round two when opponent Jaume Munar retired after the second set at Louis Armstrong Stadium.
Munar abandoned before the start of the third set, with Austria’s Thiem leading 7-6 (8/6), 6-3.
Thiem now faces India’s Sumit Nagal, who became the first Indian man since 2013 to the reach the second round of a Grand Slam event with a 6-1, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 win over Bradley Klahn of the United States.
The US Open is taking place in a spectator-free bubble at the US National Tennis Center in New York.
Players movements are tightly controlled and everyone onsite is being tested regularly to minimize the risk of infection.
Argentina’s Guido Pella accused tennis chiefs of operating a double-standard over the handling of French player Benoit Paire’s positive COVID-19 case.
Paire was withdrawn on Sunday but several French players who had been in contact with him were allowed to remain in the tournament under enhanced safety protocols.
Pella was excluded from last week’s Western & Southern Open, a US Open tuneup, despite testing negative after his trainer contracted the virus.
“I am mad at them because of that, because they change the rules when Benoit tested positive. So I want to know why,” he said after being knocked out in the first round.
Venus and Kim Clijsters out on US Open day two
Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters bowed out of the US Open at the first hurdle on Tuesday as seeded players dominated the women’s draw for a second straight day.
Hours after younger sister Serena had battled into the second round, Venus, 40, was back in the spotlight in what was an incredible 22nd US Open appearance.
But Venus, who reached the final of the US Open on her debut at the tournament in 1997, was beaten in the first round for the first time in her glittering career by Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic.
Muchova, the 20th seed, had too much poise for Williams en route to a 6-3, 7-5 win.
While Venus knows that time is running out on her career at the top level — she has not gone further than the third round at a Slam event since 2017 — she insisted afterwards that she plans to continue playing, starting with this month’s French Open at Roland Garros.
“I love this game,” Venus said. “I’m good at what I do. It’s easy to stay motivated and excited about doing something so amazing. Not many people get to do this.
“But I look forward to a few days off. It’s been a lot of work. Looking forward to just having a little bit of a rest before the clay courts.”
Belgium’s Clijsters meanwhile, making the second comeback of her career and her first appearance at a Grand Slam since 2012, raised hopes of an upset after taking the first set of her match with Russia’s Ekaterina Alexandrova.
The 37-year-old three-time US Open champion ran out of steam though as Alexandrova, seeded 21, completed a 3-6, 7-5, 6-1 win.
This year’s women’s field in New York is more open than ever with world number one Ashleigh Barty, the second-ranked Simona Halep and defending champion Bianca Andreescu all electing to skip the tournament.
One of the leading contenders for the title, second seed Sofia Kenin of the United States, got off the mark with a 6-2, 6-2 win over unseeded Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium.
The 21-year-old, who won an emotional maiden Grand Slam title at this year’s Australian Open, later revealed she had cried to herself before the match in order to alleviate stress.
“Crying. That’s what I did. I mean, I had to let it out,” Kenin said. “It’s fine. It worked.”
Kenin will play Canada’s Leylah Fernandez in the second round. Fernandez opened her campaign with a 6-4, 7-5, win over Vera Zvonareva on Tuesday.
Ninth seed Jo Konta meanwhile won the ‘Battle of Britain’ against compatriot Heather Watson, winning 7-6 (9/7), 6-1.
“There’s always going to be rivalry between compatriots,” Konta said. “It’s always going to be that extra stressful.
“There’s always going to be an element of people having more judgments and more of an opinion on the outside at home on a match like today,” added Konta, who will play Romania’s Sorana Cirstea in the second round.