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By Richard Pagliaro | Monday, September 28, 2020

Roland Garros safety protocol prevents Serena Williams from staying in her apartment in Paris.

Playing her first clay-court match in 15 months, Williams looked like a woman who returned home to find all the furniture in her living room rearranged: though everything was familiar it seemed oddly out of place.

Venus: I'll Definitely Be Back in 2021

Kristie Ahn served for the first set at 5-4, but Williams broke back then rampaged through a shutout set in an uneven 7-6(2), 6-0 victory on Court Philippe Chatrier.

The three-time Roland Garros champion raised her record to 66-13 in Paris crediting self belief with elevating her level of play in the second set.

"The biggest difference was just confidence," Williams said. "I just need to play with more confidence, like I'm Serena. So that was it. I just started playing like that. And I love the clay and I started playing like it, opening the court and moving and sliding.

"I do think her level dropped a little bit in the beginning of the first set and I took advantage of that. I think her level was so high in the first set that I just needed to lift my level more than what I did."

Continuing her quest to match Margaret Court’s all-time record by winning her 24th Grand Slam, Williams improved her Grand Slam first-round record to 75-1.

Williams’ lone opening-round major loss came eight years ago in Paris where she suffered a stunning three-set defeat to Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano. That loss prompted her to hire coach Patrick Mouratoglou.

The French coach watched his charge lift her level through a match that was a tale of two very different sets today.

Facing Ahn for the second straight Slam 27 days after she beat the former Stanford standout in the US Open first round, Williams spent a set shaking the rust off her clay-court game. Battling through the opening set, Williams whipped 11 aces and doubled Ahn’s winner output—26 to 13—in a one hour, 41 minute victory.

The first-set raised more questions about Williams’ health and her ability to play first-strike tennis on the slow terre battue without the benefit of a red-clay warm-up match at the age of 39.

Clad completely in black, including a long-sleeved black top and black leggings to ward off the chill, Williams wore blond highlights in her hair and black kinesiology tape snaking around her Achilles she strained during her US Open semifinal loss to Victoria Azarenka. Williams said she's been treating her Achilles with constant rehab and "a ton of prayer." 

"A ton of prayer. I'm doing so much for it," Williams said. "I did so much for it at Patrick's academy, like I went straight from New York directly to his academy and started rehabbing it.

"So one of the reasons I came into press a little bit earlier than normal, because I need to get back and start the protocol all over again. So just kind of just rehab that, laser, ice, just a lot, a lot of stuff on it."

Ahn, who carried just two career clay-court main-draw wins compared to 173 for her opponent onto Court Chatrier, played with scrappy resolve throughout the first set. Ahn compared stopping Serena's roll in the second set to trying to halt a runaway train. 

"It feels like you're trying to push arunaway train in the opposite direction. It's very difficultto try and stop, to stop her momentum when she's going,when she's feeling it," Ahn said. But it's no excuse, regardless of who you play.

"I thought my level dropped in addition to her playing better, so it was just a bad combination for me. But, yeah, I mean there's a reason why she's the GOAT, you know, when she's, regardless if she's down or if she's up, like she's going to fight and it's that much moreof an uphill battle if she does take the first set."

Williams returned to Paris with a bang, slashing three aces in a row to seal a love hold to open. Though her first service game was a breeze, Williams’ second was a battle that spanned nearly 13 minutes. Ahn converted her sixth break point going up 2-1.

The world No. 102 befuddled Williams with a drop shot that helped her back up the break for 3-1.

At the outset, Ahn handled the cool, damp conditions and sometimes funky bounces better.

Facing a third break point in the eighth game, Ahn answered with an ace to save it. Held without a forehand winner through seven games, Williams whipped a forehand return crosscourt for another break point. A scrambling Ahn fought off everything Williams threw at her including lofting a fine defensive lob winning a 19-shot rally to get back to deuce.

On her sixth break point, Williams finally broke through wrong-footing the New York native with a diagonal backhand and erupting in a double fist pump capping a draining 13-minute game breaking back for 4-all.

The Serena of old would have likely taken that break and blown open the match, but under these conditions the 39-year-old had to work for everything she got in the first set. Ahn continued to mix in the slice gunking up the gears of Williams’ game. The sixth seeded staggered through a sloppy game as Ahn scored her second break at love for 5-4. 

Ahn served for the set, but Williams wouldn’t wilt. She broke back at 15 then plowed through her first love hold since the opening game for 6-5.

Sixty-five minutes into the match, Ahn forced the tiebreaker.

Stinging serving and some sharp-angled forehand carried the former world No. 1 through the tiebreaker. Ahn missed a forehand then battled Williams in the best point of the breaker that saw the four-time Olympic gold medal champion counter a slice with an angled forehand winner for 5-2. Williams spun her seventh ace out wide wrapping a demanding one hour, 11-minute set that featured 105 points and a combined 15 break points.

Once Williams had the first set in hand, she relaxed, began exploring more angles and blazed through the second set.

This match illustrated why Williams' mind is one of her best weapons. She spent stretches of the first set trying to hit through Ahn, but wisely worked shorter, sharper angles in the second set, particularly off her forehand, in rolling through the 30-minute second set.

Williams whipped her 11th ace to close setting up a second-round match up with a familiar face, Tsvetana Pironkova.

The Bulgarian wild card stopped Andrea Petkovic, 6-3, 6-3, earning her first Roland Garros win in three years.

A 2016 French Open quarterfinalist, Pironkova took the opening set from Williams before the American prevailed 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the US Open quarterfinals.

"I've been told that I would play against her if I win, which of course it's exciting," Pironkova said. "It's always exciting to face her, especially after our last match. We played three sets, it was very exciting match, so we'll see. I'm definitely very excited."

It's a shared excitement.

"She's playing well, but I am too," Williams said. "I'm ready to play her. She'll be ready to play me. It will be a long match, she will get a lot of balls back, but so am I. I'll be ready."


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