The U.S. Open had been underway for only a few hours and already total pandemonium had erupted.
The practice courts, a preferred hangout for the geekiest of tennis fans, had a very special guest on the schedule that afternoon: "S. Williams." Near the players' entrance, where a steady stream of Mercedes quietly deposited players and their entourages, a thick crowd had formed by 4 PM.
Children stood toward the front, holding giant tennis balls and Sharpies, their parents overhead armed with smartphones, hoping to take the selfie of the summer. Security guards murmured into walkie-talkies. Sighs of disappointment bloomed when a mere journalist or other non-celebrity rounded the bend.
Serena Williams finally made her way onto the practice courts before rapturous crowds. Relaxed and confident, she took a series of powerful swings. Her U.S. Open—and let's face it, it is ours—had begun.
Williams, already a historic figure in the sport of tennis, or any sport at all, is aiming to become the first player to complete the calendar Grand Slam since Steffi Graf, in 1988. A U.S. Open win would also tie Graf's tally of 22 major titles. It's virtually impossible to imagine being so dominant in your chosen field that one of its biggest events in the world—held in New York City, no less—essentially revolves around you, but that is life as Serena Williams. As any professional athlete can tell you, though, it doesn't take much to screw it all up.
The pressure was likely the greater foe for Williams as she took on her first opponent at the Open, Russia's Vitalia Diatchenko, on Monday night. The ghosts of upset top seeds hang in the players lounge like the smell of a freshly opened can of tennis balls. Williams, who has been no stranger to such losses during her career, is by no means entitled to the trophy here.
Earlier on Monday, her sister, Venus Williams, who entered the tournament 23rd, defeated Puerto Rico's Monica Puig, 6-4, 6-7(7), 6-3. American Madison Keys triumphed Monday, posing a potential domestic threat to Williams as she continues through the tournament, but another American, Sloane Stephens, fell. Third-seeded Maria Sharapova, a longtime Williams rival, pulled out of the tournament with a leg injury.
"She deserves every single thing that she has," Venus Williams said of her sister on Monday. "At the same time, she's not focused on the attention, she's focused on her tennis. So she's focused on the important things, and the results show."
Shortly after 7:15 PM, under the spaceship-esque new retractable roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio kicked off the ceremonies, giving Williams a shout out and reminding the crowd that for the first time, the women's singles final sold out faster than the men's. Like any good U.S. Open night session, there was a solid showing of celebrities: Josh Groban, Anna Wintour, Alec Baldwin, Katie Couric, Rosie Perez, Taye Diggs, Billie Jean King, Martha Stewart, Amanda Seyfried, and Neil Sedaka, to name a few. Straw hats and Perrier-Jouet in plastic flutes abounded, under banners celebrating Graf.
One match down, six to go. Photo by Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports.
There's an unofficial tradition among fans of feeling happy-sorry for whoever has to go up against Serena Williams first at the Open: happy because the player, often an unknown, gets to share the spotlight Williams brings on TV and to the larger stadiums at Flushing Meadows; sorry because the match is usually a bloodbath.
That was the case with Diatchenko on Monday night. Currently ranked 86th in singles and 98th in doubles, the Sochi-born player froze. She repeatedly consulted with medical personnel as Williams, trying hard not to look bored, dribbled her ball with her racquet nearby. At one point, the commentators even pointed out that, ironically, one of the challenges for Williams in the match was all the sitting down. The pace before the night crowd was slower than what fans saw from her during the searing afternoon heat on the practice courts.
Diatchenko fell in the first set, 6-0, with Williams barely breaking a sweat. With Williams leading 2-0 in the second, Diatchenko reached across the net to Williams and retired, citing an injury. All told, it was over in 30 minutes, a sitcom of a face-off in a sport better known for Lawrence of Arabia lengths.
"I'm so ready," Williams told the crowd minutes after winning.
In her press conference, Williams was peppered with the same blend of silly and serious questions she has long been accustomed to on the professional tour.
"It was definitely different and bizarre," she said of the match. "But at the same time I was still focused. I kept thinking, you know, just stay focused; don't lose it. You never know what can happen."
One reporter asked if she was eating right. "Really?" she playfully replied. Another asked about the crowd. "It's great to be here in Arthur Ashe Stadium, to be American, just to be on this journey in my life." One reporter even called her a "modern girl," to which she replied, "I listen to modern music," eliciting chuckles.
The life of a tennis player at a Grand Slam, even if you're one of the best to ever touch the game, can still be lonely. Williams said that she has seldom left her hotel room and watches "endless Netflix" and Investigation Discovery. The quick win meant an early trip back to that hotel, where she could rest.
Williams will play Kiki Bertens, of the Netherlands, in the second round on Wednesday.