Serena Williams delivered a carefully scripted message during her first-round match at the U.S. Open: Her presence hasn't diminished, even if her ability has.
In her first match since pulling out of the Olympics because of continued soreness in her left knee, Williams, now ranked No. 11 in the world, easily handled overmatched Sandra Kleinova of the Czech Republic, 6-1, 6-3. She made more of a statement, though, with her eye-catching attire: long black boots, a denim skirt and a black shirt with studs.
All of the top seeds advanced on the first day at the U.S. Open, including men's No. 1 Roger Federer and women's No. 2 Amelie Mauresmo, who both cruised to straight-set victories. But the third-seeded Williams accomplished her goal best.
For the first time in a while, she demanded attention. She forced intimidation.
"Serena the innovator strikes again," Williams said. "The outfit was like a rebel look. I'm just doing things different, shaking it up."
Over the last few months, other women's players have often said that Williams no longer strikes them with the fear she once did, but that rang untrue Monday. Kleinova walked onto the court shaking. She stopped briefly on her way out of the locker room and mumbled to a reporter, "I'm really nervous."
And who could blame her? During warmups, Williams looked downright menacing.
Her black, studded tank top left her bulging biceps and belly-button ring exposed. Shiny boot sleeves -- which she took off before the match -- ran up close to her knees. Long silver earrings dangled to her neck, and dark eye shadow made her expression indistinguishable.
Oh, and she played two sets of tennis without so much as a hiccup. Her knee looked fine; her serve looked brilliant. She lost three service points in the entire first set and broke Kleinova's first service game. The match, played before a packed crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, lasted 53 minutes. Call it a quick spin down a fashion show runway.
"I finally felt like I was playing better," Williams said. "I've been working really, really hard, and right now I'm getting to the point where I feel a lot better."
When her match ended, Williams broke into a smile and pointed at the crowd.
"I'm just so excited to be in New York," she told the fans. "This is the best place for me to play for sure."
She seemed far distanced from the past 12 months, a stretch that has been one of the worst of her career. The two-time U.S. Open champion underwent surgery to repair a partial tear of a tendon in her left knee last August, when she was ranked No. 1, and she has never quite recovered. Even when she marched to the final at Wimbledon in early July, she sometimes looked sluggish, especially during a 6-1, 6-4 loss to Maria Sharapova in the final.
When Williams pulled out of the Olympics hours before her scheduled flight to Athens, she seemed devastated. "I've never been this disappointed," she said then, "in my whole career."
"It's been an extreme 12 months," Williams said Monday. "I'm recovering physically and mentally. It's been a little tough, but I'm coming back."
Eighth-seeded Jennifer Capriati, another American woman who pulled out of the Olympics because of an injury, also advanced to the second round, though not quite so gracefully. In a 2-6, 6-1, 6-2 win over Denisa Chladkova, Capriati's health appeared to be fine. Her groundstrokes didn't.
While she showed no sign of the hamstring injury that kept her out of the Olympics, Capriati struggled with her opponent. Her backhand, usually reliable, failed her often in the first set, and she acted out accordingly.
She slammed down her racket. She yelled at the umpire. She bristled when a fan told her to "get to work."
"It was pretty frustrating there," Capriati said. "It's scary when everything doesn't work. When I lost the first set, I decided I was just going to start over. I'm so relieved that I pulled it together."
T. Martin Retires After Loss
Todd Martin tearfully announced his retirement from tennis Monday night after a four-set loss to Fabrice Santoro of France. In a 14-year career that began at the U.S. Open in 1990, Martin won eight tournaments and more than $8 million, though he never won a major.
With his booming first serve and smiley disposition, Martin has long been a crowd favorite at the U.S. Open. He reached the final in 1999 and made the semifinals in 1994 and 2000. When he announced his retirement, though, it was nearly 10:30 p.m., and only a handful of fans were around to hear it.
"It's always been a pleasure to play in front of you," Martin told the crowd. "I'm one of the lucky guys who ran into some people who cared and knew a lot about this game and shared their knowledge with me. Otherwise, I would never have been here."