Her performance, which came on her daughter Olympia’s third birthday, was no doubt an improvement, particularly when it came to sealing the deal: she won five of the last six games and finished with 12 aces.
But it was not yet the sort of rock-solid, overwhelmingly on-target performance to send shivers through the diminished field. Williams no doubt has a grand opportunity at this tournament, with nearly a quarter of the top 100 players missing, including six of the top 10.
With her stature in the United States, her absence would have weighed heaviest, however, and though she has had health issues that could have caused her decide not to risk a return to the circuit, she committed early to the U.S. Open, giving it a major boost in credibility.
“I think what’s most important about this event taking place is just the spirit,” she said. “Sport has been gone for so long, particularly tennis. We missed two Grand Slams. The U.S. Open is the first major tennis event since the Australian Open. The morale can be really low in the world with everything that’s going on. Sometimes you just want to take your mind off it. People have been doing that for generations through sport.”
She looks motivated and quite fit, but she has also lost some of her traditional ability to intimidate. Ahn, a former collegiate star at Stanford University, was the latest example of an opponent who seemed comfortable in her presence.
The daughter of Korean immigrants, Ahn clearly does not suffer from stage fright in general as her clever and viral TikTok videos have made clear during the tour hiatus. She reached the fourth round at last year’s U.S. Open but has yet to win a singles match on the tour in 2020 or any tour title in any year.
And yet, in her first match against Williams, she started convincingly and cleverly shifted tactics and pace, alternating sliced backhands with flat forehand blasts and often getting the better of the baseline exchanges.