Even a rusty saw can perform an amputation, and Venus Williams duly made short work of some of the more tenuous delusions that have preceded her return to her favourite theatre of operations. She took exactly an hour to hack her way past an obligingly limp first-round opponent, Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan, 6-3, 6-1. So much for the notion that even the Williams sisters, who have divided nine of the past 11 titles between them, might have ceded the pack a dangerous start this time.
If either sibling is to win this tournament, admittedly, she will have to complete more matches over the next fortnight than they have managed between them since January. Both had blown away the cobwebs at Eastbourne, Serena after an absence of 49 weeks and Venus after limping out of the Australian Open with a hip injury. Serena was beaten in her second match, Venus in her third.
As such, however, the seamless renewal of their dominion here would menace the women's tour with new opprobrium. Few, it seems, can disturb its stagnant waters, unless and until one of these glistening monsters bestir themselves. It would be ungrateful, however, not to acknowledge that to win here, more or less from a bath chair, would confirm them as far too good for many other generations, besides. It is just as well, certainly, that their descent down the rankings, during their absence, did not throw them together. As it is, the No 7 and No 23 seeds can only meet in the final.
Williams was late on Court Two, leaving her victim to stare balefully at the pristine lawn. Amanmuradova is a curiously epicene creature, and her raiment – headband and knee-length shorts – almost seemed a calculated retort to the studied gloss and glamour of the Los Angeles sorority. Sure enough, Williams eventually swayed into view with a handbag over her shoulder, wearing a lace top that fell apart from a button behind her neck. With a racket in her hand, however, she proved very nearly as murderous as ever at 31.
The WTA press notes on Amanmuradova perhaps overstated matters, in disclosing that "no one in [her] family plays tennis". By the time Williams had finished with the world No 97, however, it did not seem quite so malicious. In what proved the final game of the match, in fact, the poor woman had taken to running away from the net, with a comic show of dread, as Williams bore down for the kill.
In fairness, Amanmuradova had contrived a couple of pleasantly audacious contributions as Williams initially struggled for her range. She won one or two points by gambling on rustiness in her opponent's court coverage. And there were times in the first set when a more consistent forehand, or a more powerful backhand, might have exposed that lack of honing. Ultimately, however, Amanmuradova volunteered herself as a docile foil to a champion who looked at home.
For Williams, of course, the resumption of normal service is quite literal. So long as that trusty serve is repeating dependably, it can cover a multitude of sins. There were a couple of occasions when Amanmuradova, crouching low as she held her racket meekly above her head, resembled a First World War infantryman experimentally raising a tin helmet out of the trenches – and then lowering it to find that it now had as many holes as, well, a tennis racket.
Whatever remote corner of her psyche may admit self-doubt – and only her sister seems reliably competent to locate it – it diminishes with her every languid step on to these courts. She hastened through the last five games as though she hadn't been away.
Both sisters, after all, have long shared a somewhat dilettante reputation. As a result, perhaps, their bones may not be creaking quite as they might; and their minds will remain fresher, too. Venus, for instance, has spent some of her enforced absence doing a course in interior design. "I'm just one of those nerds," she said afterwards. "I like school. So I learned a lot about myself off the court, and a lot about life."
The trouble is that very few seem able to follow the lessons. "I think I'm smarter, if anything, than five years ago," she said. "That's the beauty of being able to have a long career – being able to use the experience you learn on the court." Asked whether she might object to being described as "old school", she smiled. "'Old school' has a lot of good connotations, you know?" she said. "But I'm not sure I'd like the style of my game to be old school. I still think I come out with a lot of new moves."
Maybe so. But she is nine years younger than her next opponent, Kimiko Date-Krumm, who ended a 12-year retirement in 2008. After her own, much briefer hiatus, it seems very much as though Venus is again aligning with Mars.