It had been nearly a year since Venus Williams played a singles match.
But there was nothing ceremonial about Williams’s return to competition. The 42-year-old promptly got to work blasting one net-skimming groundstroke after another against an opponent whose power rivaled her own.
Over the nearly two-hour pummel-fest that followed, it wasn’t Williams’s ground game that let her down but her serve. Williams double-faulted 13 times, creating just enough of an opening for unseeded Canadian Rebecca Marino to tough out a 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory.
“It’s my first match, so I didn’t think I played well a lot of the times,” Williams said. “… Just trying to shake off some rust. That’s just to be expected. All I can do is just play another tournament and play better.”
Williams became the second former No. 1 player to lose in Monday’s opening round at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, where the Citi Open is hosting a 32-player women’s event for the first time in three years as a companion to its long-running men’s event.
Earlier Monday, three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray, who was ranked No. 1 for 41 weeks in 2016 and 2017, was upset by 23-year-old Mikael Ymer of Sweden in a nearly three-hour match that started when temperatures were at their highest, the sun beating down on Stadium Court.
After failing to convert four set points in the opening set, Murray flung his racket into the net in frustration and proceeded to lose the tiebreaker that settled it. Murray rallied to claim the second set, but the conditions seemed to take a toll as the 115th-ranked Ymer pulled off the 7-6 (10-8), 4-6, 6-1 upset.
Williams, who followed Murray on court at roughly 7:30 p.m., was the player most fans had come to see. She did not disappoint in a match that included several shifts of momentum and a puzzling stretch in the second set in which she was electronically cited for foot faults and had a rash of double faults. Still, she maintained her composure and kept her focus.
“I wish I could have pulled this match through for the crowd and the tournament,” Williams said during her post-match interview. “D.C. is a great place to play tennis.”
Williams was 14 when she turned pro nearly 28 years ago, which means she has competed in the top ranks of the sport for longer than most women on tour have been alive. During that time, she had faced Marino just once — in the second round of the 2010 U.S. Open, when Marino was a little-known teenage qualifier.
Williams won that match in straight sets but said afterward she felt, in some ways, that she was playing herself — seeing in Marino a 6-foot, go-for-broke hitter who blasted the cover off the ball.
After rising to No. 38 in the world, Marino put the brakes on her promising career in 2013 at 22. Online bullying and depression were among the reasons she cited. She returned after a nearly five-year hiatus during which she attended college and competed on the rowing team.
Now 31, Marino demonstrated Monday that her powerful forehand and serve are intact. She wasn’t rattled by Williams’s power, either.
Because the margin on both players’ groundstrokes is slim, the points tended to be short, ending on outright winners or errors, with few extended rallies and scant variety in shot-making. But every so often Marino would try pulling Williams forward with a slice or a drop shot, and the crowd roared each time Williams ran it down.
Credit 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams with helping her older sister prepare. The two had practiced recent mornings on the Citi Open grounds to the delight of early-arriving fans.
“She’s an absolute legend of the game,” Marino said of Venus Williams during her on-court interview, calling it a privilege to compete against her for a second time.
Earlier Monday, former No. 1 Simona Halep overcame a lapse in focus to turn back Spanish qualifier Cristina Bucsa, 6-3, 7-5. It was Halep’s first match since a semifinal loss at Wimbledon to eventual champion Elena Rybakina. It was also her first match on a hard court since March.
She credited the advice of her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, with getting her back on track after frittering away a 5-2 second-set lead.
“At 5-all, I told myself what actually he was telling me when I have panic moments during the matches,” the Romanian explained. “Calm down and just do what I have to do. Just focus on what I have to do and be brave to do it — even if sometimes I miss.”
Halep, Murray and Williams have 12 Grand Slam titles among them. But they all know — at 30, 35 and 42, respectively — that the battle to stay relevant in big tournaments is a process of continual improvement. Tennis evolves. Champions can’t afford to stand still as challengers get younger, taller, stronger and able to dish out and absorb more pace.
Sometimes that means tearing down once-reliable strokes and retooling them. Other times it means rethinking strategy and tossing out predictable patterns.
In Halep’s case, nearly every facet of her life has changed in the past 10 months. She got married in September. The next week, she and longtime coach Darren Cahill, with whom she won the 2018 French Open and 2019 Wimbledon titles, parted ways.
After competing for a stretch without a coach, Halep announced on social media in April that she had hired Mouratoglou, known primarily as the coach of Serena Williams, who was in the midst of an extended break from competition.
“I’m excited about it,” Halep said, enumerating the flurry of changes in her life. “But it’s not easy. That’s why I always try to be nice to myself, to give time to get used to everything. … I always thought inside myself that I have to be more aggressive. But now with someone that really believes that, with Patrick, gives me more confidence that I’m able to do it.”