By Ben Rothenberg
In a new time slot, Serena Williams kept her return engagement with the second round of a Grand Slam once more.
Playing in the first dedicated night session in French Open history on Monday at Roland Garros, the seventh-seeded Williams defeated the 74th-ranked Irina-Camelia Begu 7-6(6), 6-2 in an hour and 42 minutes.
Williams, who first played the French Open in 1998, said she appreciated the novelty, even without any fans in attendance because of a citywide 9 p.m. curfew in Paris.
“In all my eons of playing here, there had never been a night session at Roland Garros,” Williams told the Tennis Channel’s Jon Wertheim in an on-court, post-match interview. “So it’s cool.”
Making a late start did nothing to dim Williams’ sparkling career record in the first round of Grand Slams, which improved to 77-1 with the win over Begu. Her lone loss in the opening round of a Grand Slam came nine years ago in the first round of the French Open against Virginie Razzano.
Williams looked on the way to an emphatic victory early, breaking Begu for a 4-2 lead in the first set by ripping a running cross-court forehand winner. But after consolidating that break, Williams’ 5-2 lead slipped, with the Romanian veteran discomfiting her with her high, heavy shots that drew repeated errors from Williams’ groundstrokes.
Begu, a veteran who has spent most of her career inside the top 100, peaking at No. 22 in 2016, does not have a track record of pulling off big wins. She had won only two of her previous 14 Grand Slam matches against top-20 opponents coming into the match with Williams.
That lack of pedigree proved pivotal on Begu’s first set point opportunity, up 6-4 in the first set tiebreak on her serve. After Williams clipped the net with her return, Begu was unable to take control of the rally, and ultimately lost it on a backhand unforced error into the net caused by slow footwork.
After that escape, Williams asserted herself, stepping forward to take a swinging volley out of the air to punish the soft return Begu had hit off a 77 mph second serve.
“I was just thinking to get that ball out of the air, because I’ve been hitting some good swing volleys in practice,” Williams said.
Williams closed out the set with the same shot. After turning the rally from defense to offense with a high lob that pushed Begu back behind the baseline, Williams smacked another forehand swing volley on her first set point to take the tiebreak 8-6, then roared with satisfaction and threw her arms in the air.
“I know what to do, I’ve been here a million times,” Williams said of escaping the first set. “I just have to do it, because I know how to get out of those positions and those tight shots.”
Williams controlled the second set with considerably less suspense, taking it in 36 minutes after breaking Begu in the opening game and adding a second break in the seventh game for good measure.
Williams will face another Romanian, 174th-ranked Mihaela Buzarnescu, in the second round Wednesday.
Williams extended her nearly flawless Grand Slam opening round record despite her recent form, which has been shaky and seen her win only one of her three matches in the clay court swing this year. Williams, who lost in the semifinal at the Australian Open in February, suffered straight set losses to the 44th-ranked Nadia Podoroska in Rome and the 68th-ranked Katerina Siniakova in Parma when she returned to the tour.
But as players past and present know, playing Williams under the spotlight of a Grand Slam is a thoroughly more challenging proposition.
Lindsay Davenport, an early rival who now is a Tennis Channel commentator, said as much as she commented on the match: “The Serena who shows up at the majors is a completely different player.”
The statements Williams made with her shots were accompanied by ones with her footwear. She wore a pair of green Nike shoes that she said were “an art piece,” decorated in the style of the artwork from one of her favorite albums: Green Day’s “Dookie.”
Most of the text was in English, but one statement in French in capital letters stood out from the other writing as Williams, 39, again seeks her 24th Grand Slam title: “JE NE M’ARRÊTERAI JAMAIS.”
Simply: “I will never stop.”