Serena Williams had to fight for a winning return from her six-month coronavirus layoff on Tuesday, defeating lowly ranked Bernarda Pera in three sets at the WTA Top Seed Open tournament in Kentucky.
Serena, who before Tuesday had not played a competitive game since a Fed Cup appearance in February, came from behind to defeat American world number 60 Pera 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 in two hours and 15 minutes at the Top Seed Tennis Club in Lexington.
Venus Williams started her campaign with a straight sets wins over Victoria Azarenka in a a battle of former World No 1 players. The 40-year-old American won 6-3, 6-2 and set up an exciting encounter between the Williams sisters in the second round.
Rising American star Coco Gauff had to work hard for her straight-set win over qualifier Caroline Dolehide, winning 7-5, 7-5 while Canadian qualifier Leylah Fernandez knocked out seventh seed Sloane Stephens in their opener.
This week’s tournament – the first WTA event in the US since the Covid-19 pandemic – is taking place without spectators.
Williams, 38, later revealed that the sedate surroundings had suited her game.
“It was a really calm atmosphere, it was really chill,” Williams said. “I can’t say I disliked it. I didn’t mind it at all. I’ve been through so many things in my career and this was totally different. I think I won today because I was calm for once in my career. Kind of reminds me of junior days. Something nostalgic about that. I kind of enjoyed it.”
The 23-time Grand Slam singles champion looked to be flirting with an early exit in the second set, but recovered from 0-40 down at 4-4 before holding and eventually winning the set.
“I just knew I could do better,” Williams said. “It was an interesting game. I just had to get used to her game a little bit. She played really well.”
Pera had seized an early advantage in the first set, breaking Williams to take a 3-2 lead before holding for the remainder of the set to win 6-4.
Williams was soon in trouble on her service game in the second set, falling 0-40 in the opening game before battling back to hold. Williams moved into a 3-1 lead with a break of Pera’s serve in the fourth game, but her Croatia-born opponent hit back immediately with a break of her own before holding to level at 3-3.
With the next two games going to serve, Williams looked to be in trouble after falling 0-40 down in the ninth game. But she dug deep to hold for a 5-4 lead and then broke for the set when Pera sent a forehand return wide.
The momentum spilled into the deciding set, and another misdirected forehand from Pera handed Williams a break to move into a 3-1 lead. Another break took her into a 5-1 lead and she closed out the win by holding to love, wrapping up victory with a cross-court forehand that left Pera stranded.
Serena Williams (USA x1) bt Bernarda Pera (USA) 4-6, 6-4, 6-1
Venus Williams (USA) bt Victoria Azarenka (BLR) 6-3, 6-2
Catherine Bellis (USA) bt Francesca Di Lorenzo (USA) 6-1, 6-2
Jil Teichmann (SUI) bt Anna Kalinskaya (RUS) 6-2, 7-5
Yulia Putintseva (KAZ x5) bt Ajla Tomljanovic (AUS) 6-0, 6-4
Anna Blinkova (RUS) bt Kristie Ahn (USA) 2-6, 6-4, 3-1 abandon
Olga Govortsova (BLR) bt Bethanie Mattek-Sands (USA) 7-6 (7/4), 6-1
Coco Gauff (USA) bt Caroline Dolehide (USA) 7-5, 7-5
With AFP Inputs