PARIS – Serena Williams survived a first-set scare before defeating Russia’s Vitalia Diatchenko 2-6 6-1 6-0 to reach the second round of the French Open on Monday.
The 37-year-old American, who is attempting to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam titles, racked up her 800th career main draw win with her victory in front of a half-full Court Philippe Chatrier.
“There is always a lot fear for a first-round match,” said Williams, who eventually raced to victory, taking 12 of the last 13 games.
“I made lots of mistakes in the first set, and I just said ‘Good luck, Serena’.
“I was strong after that... now I feel like I need to go and practice.”
Williams – the 2002, 2013 and 2015 champion in Paris – will face either Japan’s Kurumi Nara or Dalila Jakupovic of Slovenia for a place in the last-32.
Williams won her most recent major at the Australian Open in 2017 while pregnant.
She returned to Grand Slam tennis at Roland Garros in 2018 after giving birth to her daughter, making the last-16, where she had been set to resume her bitter rivalry with Maria Sharapova.
An arm injury torpedoed that meeting and stalled her assault on a fourth title in Paris.
Defeat in the 2018 finals at Wimbledon and US Open, where her now-infamous meltdown overshadowed Naomi Osaka’s title triumph, followed her Paris heartbreak.
Her Australian Open campaign in January ended in a quarter-final loss to Karolina Pliskova, despite having led 5-1 in the final set and holding four match points.
Since Melbourne, Williams had been unable to finish the three tournaments she had entered – retiring in the third round of Indian Wells, and withdrawing after winning a round in Miami, and after winning one round in Rome due to a right knee injury.
On Monday, the 83rd-ranked Diatchenko, who knocked Maria Sharapova out of Wimbledon last year, broke Williams twice in the opening set in the fifth and seventh games, claiming the opener on a third set point.
Williams fired four aces in the set, but also 14 unforced errors.
Suddenly, she was staring at only her second first-round loss at a Slam after her 2012 defeat in Paris by Virginie Razzano.
But she stormed back to level the encounter, cutting the errors by half and breaking in the second and sixth games of the set.
She swept through the decider, breaking in the first, third and fifth games.
One year after her ‘Black Panther’ catsuit caused controversy, Williams returned to Roland Garros dressed in a zebra-striped cape emblazoned with the words ‘mother, champion, queen, goddess’ all translated into French in a nod to her hosts.
Once the cape was removed, Williams revealed a black and white zebra-stripe print dress.
She fell foul of tournament organisers last year with her one-piece black outfit which she said she needed to wear to boost her circulation.
Williams had suffered life-threatening blood clots when she gave birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia in 2017.AFP