Serena Williams must have hoped that her home tournament – the Miami Open – would give her comeback the momentum she is looking for. Instead she went down to a 6-3, 6-2 defeat in just 77 minutes, and walked straight off the court into a waiting SUV.
This was always going to be a major test for Williams. She had landed a horrible draw: a first-round showdown against the most dangerous unseeded player in the tournament – 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, who had enjoyed the moment of her life on Sunday when she lifted the trophy in Indian Wells.
Even after that success, Osaka has yet to break the world’s top 20, but she has long been seen as a potential challenger for the biggest titles.On Wednesday, the young Japanese had too much confidence, power and rhythm for Williams, who is still cranking her way up to full operating power. The final point was representative, as Williams flubbed a straightforward short forehand for a slightly anti-climactic conclusion.
The result underlines the point made by the Miami Open’s new tournament director James Blake, who suggested this week that Williams deserves to be seeded after the 13-month absence caused by the birth of her daughter Alexis Olympia. “For someone who goes on maternity break, they should be protected,” said Blake. “She had a kid, which we should all be celebrating, so when she comes back there should be a grace period.”
Williams’ white Rolls Royce used to be a fixture in the car park here. She lives in Palm Beach, two hours drive up the coast, though she often stays nearby on the picturesque Key Biscayne peninsula. She has claimed the Miami Open no fewer than eight times.
Osaka has yet to break the world’s top 20, but she has long been seen as a potential challenger for the biggest titles.
But on this occasion she settled for the blacked-out windows of one of the tournament vehicles, which conveyed her away from the site only seconds after the final point had been played.
About an hour-and-a-half after the end of the match, Williams delivered a corporate-sounding statement via WTA officials. “Every tournament is an opportunity for me to better understand the areas I need to improve to be my best,” she said. “Naomi played a great match and I learn something each time I play. I look forward to continuing my return by progressing every day. I’m so grateful for my fans who continue to support me every step of this incredible journey.”
As for Osaka, she admitted afterwards that Williams had been the woman who inspired her to take up tennis in the first place. “I kind of wanted to impress her,” said Osaka. “I just wanted to make her say ‘come on’ one time, and I think she did, so I’m really happy about that.”
It will be interesting to see how Williams handles her schedule from here. She is dangerous on any court, but clay – which becomes the dominant surface in the coming weeks, is probably her least favourite. And she will probably prefer to stay in Florida, working on her fitness and timing, for a few weeks rather than going through the European red-clay grind.