Serena Williams at least looked the part of a Wimbledon champion in her white satin dress at the Nasdaq Open here yesterday, and she made short work of her first match since defeating her older sister, Venus, in the women's singles final at the All England Club eight months ago.
However, a 6-1, 6-0 win after 43 minutes against Marta Marrero, a Spanish qualifier, ranked No 83 in the world, could not disguise the reality that this was a gentle exercise ahead of the major challenges Williams faces on her road back to the top.
On the eve of the tournament, Williams said she was not going to put pressure on herself by expecting too much from her first tournament since recovering from a knee operation, and much of the time she seemed to be playing from memory.
Making almost as many errors as winning shots in blustery conditions, Williams was helped by her opponent's frailty on the big points. Marrero, a 21-year-old from Las Palmas, double-faulted eight times, four of the errors costing her games.
The fact that the Williams sisters are seeded to meet in the final at a time when both are trying to put their careers back on track after a year of injury problems says everything about the women's draw here. The world's top five players are absent, including the dominating Belgians, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, and the Russian Anastasia Myskina, who withdrew on Thursday because of a sprained toe.
For the tournament organisers, the sight of Serena Williams on the Centre Court was a welcome relief after rain had washed out the majority of the matches on the previous two days. The fact that the stadium was far from filled for the return of the champion may have had more to do with the early morning rain than any lack of interest, though the tennis was as underwhelming as the audience.
Williams, given a bye in the first round, marked her return with a 94mph ace on the first point and finished the opening set after 21 minutes with a 112mph ace. Marrero won her only game by holding for 1-3 in spite of two double-faults.
The Spaniard's double-faults virtually gifted Williams a 5-0 lead in the second set, and the American served out the match with her fifth ace, at 109mph. Williams then gave the spectators a regal wave before leaving to continue the hard work she needs to do to ensure that the powerful strokes start flowing with consistency again.
In the men's singles, the 33-year-old American qualifier Todd Martin advanced to the third round with a 6-3, 5-7, 7-5 win against Jarkko Nieminen, of Finland, the 29th seed.
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