NEW YORK — Serena Williams was so dominant in the first round of the U.S. Open, her opponent really needed a hug.
So midway through the second set of defending champion Williams’ 6-0, 6-1 victory Monday night, Francesca Schiavone wandered behind the baseline, found a ball boy and enveloped him in a full-fledged embrace.
It was that kind of evening for Schiavone, an often-demonstrative player who is certainly no pushover: She won the 2010 French Open, and was the runner-up at that Grand Slam tournament a year later. She’s been ranked as high as No. 4 but is 54th this week.
“I knew playing a former Grand Slam champion in the first round was a really, really tough draw,” Williams said, “so I tried to be super serious.”
All told, the match only took an hour. The No. 1-ranked and No. 1-seeded Williams was nearly perfect, making only eight unforced errors, compiling a 13-3 edge in winners, hitting serves faster than 115 mph, and taking the first 10 games.
Williams is seeking her fifth U.S. Open championship, and 17th Grand Slam title overall. She improved to 61-4 in 2013 and has won eight tournaments.
Earlier in the day, on the same court, Williams’ older sister Venus won her first-round match, 6-1, 6-2 against 12th-seeded Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium.
“I haven’t had a lot of time to talk to her, but I was really happy she did well,” Serena said about Venus.
For years and years, a first-round victory by Venus Williams at a major tournament would hardly merit a mention.
She is, after all, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion.
And yet nowadays, at age 33, two years removed from being diagnosed with a disease that saps energy, hampered much of this season by a bad lower back, and her ranking down to 60th, Venus Williams entered Day 1 at the U.S. Open having won a total of three matches over the past five Grand Slam tournaments.
Venus Williams smacked serves at up to 120 mph, returned superbly, and covered the court well enough to hit a handful of swinging volley winners.
To Flipkens, this was not an upset.
“If Venus is there – if she’s fit, if she’s focused – she’s a top-10 player,” Flipkens said.
“Everybody who knows a little bit of the game of tennis can see that. Today, she was like a top-10 player.”
Williams, who topped the WTA rankings in 2002, hasn’t cracked the top 10 since she was No. 9 in March 2011. She hasn’t been past the third round at a Grand Slam tournament since a fourth-round exit at Wimbledon later that year. Indeed, Williams lost in the first round in two of her previous four appearances at majors, including at the French Open in May; she sat out Wimbledon for the only time in her career in June.
“I stay positive because I know I can play great tennis. Sometimes you just have to go through more than what you want to go through,” the American said after winning against Belgium’s Flipkens. “Sometimes you have to have losses.”
Their match was the day’s second in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Rafael Nadal, a 12-time major champion, followed on the main court with a straight-set victory over American Ryan Harrison.
At night in Ashe, defending champion Serena Williams was to face 2010 French Open winner Francesca Schiavone, before Roger Federer took on 62nd-ranked Grega Zemlja of Slovenia.
Flipkens was the first seeded woman to lose at the year’s last Grand Slam. Two seeded men exited during Monday’s afternoon session: No. 11 Kei Nishikori of Japan lost 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 to British qualifier Dan Evans, while No. 27 Fernando Verdasco of Spain was beaten 6-3, 7-5, 1-6, 4-6, 6-3 by Ivan Dodig of Croatia.
Sloane Stephens, a 20-year-old American seeded 15th, very nearly joined the list of losers, dropping the opening set, then trailing 4-2 in the third and 3-1 in the closing tiebreaker, before coming back to edge 110th-ranked Mandy Minella of Luxembourg 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5).
Stephens heard plenty of support from the crowd, of course. She also picked out one particular voice in the stands that tried to remind her of at least one reason to be motivated.
“Someone yelled to me, ‘If you don’t get it together, this lady is going to take your second round prize money!’ I was like, ‘Oh, God,’” Stephens recounted.
She’s one of a crop of young women from the U.S. seen as potential successors to the Williams sisters as tennis standard-bearers for the country; the 19 Americans in the main draw are the most at a Grand Slam tournament in seven years.
By reaching the semifinals at the Australian Open in January, then the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, Stephens only increased expectations – particularly when competing on home turf.
“There’s more eyes on me,” said Stephens, who is based in Coral Springs, Fla. “Just the whole being here at the U.S. Open is a bit overwhelming. Literally everywhere you go, every single person knows who you are, as opposed to when you’re at the French Open or when you’re at Wimbledon.”
Venus Williams has spent 1½ decades in the spotlight, from the moment she showed up at Flushing Meadows in 1997 as a 17-year-old with white beads clackety-clacking in her braids and made it all the way to the title match. She won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2000 and 2001, then added three more titles at the All England Club in 2005, 2007 and 2008.
The only other time Flipkens played Williams came during that stretch, in the 2007 Fed Cup, and the Belgian lost in straight sets then.
“Today, I didn’t feel a lot of difference between this match and that match,” Flipkens said.
She was particularly troubled by Williams’ serving and returning. As is her wont, Williams stepped inside the baseline to receive second serves, putting pressure on Flipkens, who double-faulted six times.
Wearing a black dress with a colorful flower print, and fuchsia-colored braids tied in a bun, Williams needed all of 13 minutes to wrest control, taking 16 of the opening 21 points. Williams’ power-based game was only occasionally bothered by Flipkens’ slices.
There were bumpy patches early in the second set, when Williams faced a total of eight break points, but she saved seven. At 2-all, Williams faced the last significant test, a 16-point, 12-minute game with three break chances for Flipkens that were erased this way: 113 mph ace, 115 mph service winner, 116 mph serve that set up an errant forehand. As that shot from Flipkens sailed long, Williams shouted, “Come on!” Williams won the next point, a 15-stroke exchange, with a volley winner and shook her left fist.
On a day that began with a retirement announcement by James Blake – a former top-five player who also is 33 – Williams showed she’s still capable of big shots at big moments.
“I realize that I haven’t had a lot of chances to play this year or a lot of chances to play healthy this year, have had injuries and what have you, so I’m just going to have to keep working my way into it, maybe more than some of the other players,” she said. “But I know I can do that.”