Serena Williams returns the ball to Rebecca Peterson on Monday. Photo: Gregorio Borgia/AP
Serena Williams returns the ball to Rebecca Peterson on Monday. Photo: Gregorio Borgia/AP
Venus Williams got the better of Elise Mertens at the Italian Open on Monday. Photo: Gregorio Borgia/AP
Venus Williams got the better of Elise Mertens at the Italian Open on Monday. Photo: Gregorio Borgia/AP

ROME – Serena Williams looked sharper than in her previous match in March as she opened her clay-court season with a routine 6-4 6-2 win over Swedish qualifier Rebecca Peterson on Monday.

Next up at the Italian Open – sister Venus Williams in the siblings’ first meeting on European clay in nearly 17 years.

Venus, who won her only Rome title 20 years ago, defeated Elise Mertens 7-5 3-6 7-6(4) after more than three hours, requiring nine match points before eliminating her Belgian opponent.

The Williams sisters’ last match on red clay came in the 2002 French Open final, won by Serena.

In their last match in Rome, Venus won their second career meeting way back in the 1998 quarter-finals.

“That’s crazy,” Serena said. “I vaguely remember that, so I don’t really remember... We play each other a lot. Seems like every tournament nowadays, we meet early. It is what it is.”

Serena leads the career series 18-12.

In March at the Miami Open, Serena needed three sets to beat Peterson.

“It’s been a while. I haven’t played a ton of matches this year,” Serena said.

“Not my choice, just by force. I really, really actually desperately wanted to be on the tour and to be playing. It felt good to finally be back out. Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep it up.”

Serena fell behind 3-1 in the first set, but then began to take control with her baseline power on a windy day at the Foro Italico.

When Serena ran down a passing attempt from Peterson and replied with a cross-court winner to break for 5-2 in the second set, she let out a scream and bent over as she pumped both of her fists.

In the final game, Serena served two aces and saved two break points, before closing out the first-round match.

Serena finished with 28 winners to Peterson’s eight, and committed only two more unforced errors than the 58th-ranked Swede, 22-20.

Serena was playing for the first time since withdrawing ahead of her third-round match in Miami because of a left knee injury.

The last time Serena played in Rome was in 2016 when she won the last of her four Italian Open trophies.

Serena is playing only her fourth tournament of the season, and was unable to finish her last two due to physical ailments.

“I haven’t been able to train or practice a lot. I was out much longer than I expected,” Serena said.

“But I did everything I could to stay fit and to keep my cardio up. I knew that I love the clay season, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Others advancing on the women’s side included Madison Keys, Garbine Muguruza, Johanna Konta and Dominika Cibulkova.

AP