That is, until Tuesday at the French Open.
Williams came within two points of victory nine times, yet remarkably failed to close the deal against unheralded and 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano.
The match ended with a theatrical, 23-minute final game filled with 30 points, more than enough for an entire set, featuring ebbs and flows, high-pressure shotmaking and nerves. That game included five wasted break points for Williams, and seven match points that she saved, until Razzano finally converted her eighth, 3 hours and 3 minutes after they began playing.
Williams had been 46 for 46 in openers at tennis’ top venues, and those encounters tended to be drama-free.
Now Williams’ first-round Grand Slam record is 46-1 after a stunning 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 loss to Razzano on the red clay at Roland Garros.
The 30-year-old American returned to action last year after missing about 10 months because of a series of health scares, including two foot operations and blood clots, a scary stretch she says altered her world view.
“I’ve been through so much in my life, and ... I’m not happy, by no means,” said Williams, her eyes welling with tears. “I just always think things can be worse.”
On the men’s side Rafael Nadal began his quest for a record seventh French Open title in style.
The second-seeded Spaniard defeated Simone Bolelli 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 Tuesday on Court Philippe Chatrier – the same stadium where Nadal has won six of his 10 Grand Slam titles.
Maria Sharapova won by a score that couldn’t be better, a 6-0, 6-0 “double bagel” victory over Alexandra Cadantu. And Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova advanced by beating junior Wimbledon champion Ashleigh Barty 6-1, 6-2.
Nadal, who is tied with Bjorn Borg with six French Open titles, improved his record to 46-1 at Roland Garros. His only loss came in the fourth round in 2009, against Robin Soderling.
Against Bolelli, Nadal made only 18 unforced errors. From 2-2 in the first set, Nadal won eight consecutive games to take control.
“I think I did what I had to do today,” Nadal said. “I played probably with less stress or nervous than in other first rounds in the past.”
Fourth-seeded Andy Murray also advanced, beating Tatsuma Ito 6-1, 7-5, 6-0.
Sharapova routed Cadantu on Court Suzanne Lenglen, needing just 48 minutes to advance to the second round. She finished the match with 18 winners to zero for Cadantu, but had to save three break points.
Sharapova, who lost in this year’s Australian Open final, is looking to complete a career Grand Slam by winning the title at Roland Garros.