There is something about New York, as any performer can attest, that demands the spectacular.
So it was only fitting that Serena Williams, who brought up the curtain on this year's U.S. Open, strode onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday with $40,000 worth of diamonds dangling from her ears. Spanish sensation Rafael Nadal entered with a flourish as well, unveiling a twist on his signature Capri pants -- jet black, rather than white -- topped by a sleeveless red tank that squeezed his pecs tighter than a boa constrictor.
Even the Empire State Building got dolled up for the occasion, bathed in "tennis-ball yellow" lights in honor of a star-studded opening day during which all the big names sail through: Both Williams sisters, who boast four U.S. Open titles between them; sentimental favorite Andre Agassi, playing in his 20th consecutive Open; the charismatic Nadal; and top-seeded Maria Sharapova, who vowed to "hit the lines a little bit more" on the eve of this year's tournament lest she leave New York's raucous tennis fans feeling shortchanged.
It was victory enough that all of Monday's matches were completed. The rain that forecasters had predicted held off, but the withering humidity felled the unfit and unprepared.
Svetlana Kuznetsova was highest seed (fifth) to fall, becoming the first defending U.S. Open champion ousted in the first round in tournament history. "It was pretty humid out there, and it was tough," said Kuznetsova, beaten by unheralded countrywoman Ekaterina Bychkova, 6-3, 6-2. Also bounced was 2004 French Open champion Gaston Gaudio, upended by American Brian Baker, 7-6 (11-9), 6-2, 6-4.
American tennis's brightest hope for the future, 16-year-old Donald Young, also flamed out in his first appearance in the main draw of a Grand Slam event. Young earned the coveted berth by winning the boys' 18-and-under national championship this month, but lost to qualifier Giorgio Galimberti of Italy, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, 6-2.
And a vicious combination of dehydration and body cramps seized Japan's Akiko Morigami, who suddenly couldn't breathe and broke down in sobs after splitting sets with Australia's Nicole Pratt. Morigami was forced to retire and ushered off the court in a wheelchair, crying inconsolably.
But for the most part, the big stars faced only minor blips on Day One of the season's final Grand Slam event.
Serena Williams needed just 78 minutes to defeat qualifier Yung-Jan Chan of Taipei, 6-1, 6-3, but was hardly in top form, landing just 53 percent of her first serves and moving at a labored pace around the court.
Chan, who turned 16 this month, seemed as if she could run forever, scampering side to side to retrieve Williams's thundering forehands. After overcoming center-court jitters, the youngster nearly made it a match in the second set, breaking Williams to take a 3-1 lead. But Williams raised her play, as well as the volume of her grunts, to break back and reel off every game that followed.
"You know, she's Serena," said Chan, ranked 261st in the world.
Williams called it a "decent" start and played down the knee and ankle injuries that limited her preparation this summer. She seemed far more eager to discuss matters of style rather than substance during her post-match interview, as reporters volleyed questions about the 13 karats of yellow and white diamonds that cascaded from her ears like twin chandeliers.
"They're really hot," Williams said of the earrings, loaned by a Los Angeles jewelry designer. But as Williams rolled through the 29-minute first set, one of the earrings fell to the ground and she ended up taking them off altogether. There were conflicting reports about whether the earring was damaged. Regardless, she'll be loaned a new pair for her next match.
Big sister Venus Williams posted a nearly identical score in her opener on center court later in the day, defeating Rika Fujiwara of Japan, 6-3, 6-1. At 6 feet 1, Venus towered over the 5-1 Fujiwara. But Japan's fifth-ranked woman gave her a workout. Like Serena, Venus hasn't had the ideal preparation for the U.S. Open, battling the flu and fatigue since winning her third Wimbledon title in July.
"At the same time," Venus said, "I feel like I have enough experience to get here and really know what it takes every day and every match, no matter what someone brings to me."
The sisters are scheduled to meet in the tournament's fourth round, and both expressed disappointment over the draw. Their early meeting is partially a consequence of their limited play over the past year, which has caused their rankings to drop. Serena is eighth; Venus, 10th.
"The only way to think about it is just play to get there -- don't go out before," Serena said of their prospective fourth-round clash. "That's all we can do, you know. There's nothing else I can do except get back to one and two in the world."
Sharapova and Agassi shared top billing in the evening session. Sharapova showed no sign of the strained pectoral muscle that limited her preparation, dismissing Eleni Daniilidou of Greece, 6-1, 6-1. And Agassi closed the show with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 victory over Romania's Razvan Sabau that disappointed only in its brevity, lasting just 69 minutes.