By Stephanie Myles
RIO DE JANEIRO — Serena Williams officially announced her arrival at the Olympics Monday night in her trademark way, one that never goes unnoticed and leaves no one indifferent.
There was unexplainable angst out of all proportion to the minor drama at hand. There were screams of despair and dismay, and a prime piece of racquet sculpture as created in fury when she let French opponent Alizé Cornet win … two consecutive games early in the first set.
After an opening set that took nearly an hour and a half and during which she had to save two set points, Williams rolled to a 7-6 (5), 6-2 victory that put her in the third round of the Rio Games’ women’s singles tournament.
Sunday’s shocking first-round exit in women’s doubles, in which she and sister Venus were the defending gold medalists, means there will be nothing else requiring Williams’ time and energy during these Olympics, other than a slight girl crush on the U.S. gymnastics team.
Her wakeup call is bad news for potential opponents because when the 34-year-old is this fired up, this early, the end result is often hardware of some sort. After the match, she also sounded as though she had a cold, struggling to find her voice at times. Or maybe it was just all the screaming.
Williams didn’t arrive in Rio this way. When she trooped onto the big stage in a large conference room with the other 10 members of the U.S. tennis team late last week, she looked as though she wanted to be anywhere but there. Her answers were monotone; she deferred many of the questions to her sister.
Her trips through the media mixed zone after her first-round win over Daria Gavrilova and the doubles loss to Barbora Strycova and Lucie Safarova (whose stomach was in such bad shape she had to retire against Kirsten Flipkens after the first set in singles Monday) may have added up to four questions and about a minute.
Whatever the funk, the early-round meeting with Cornet snapped her right to attention.
“It was big motivation because I haven’t done well against [her] in the past,” Williams said. “She says she always knows how to play me and I just, every time I play her I’m just not in my best shape, which is ironic. So I really wanted to play well, because she always seems to play well against me.”
The 26-year-old Cornet has a bit of an unorthodox game, with a spinned forehand she has straightened out some in recent years and a flatter backhand. She battles pretty hard and does whatever she has to do to get an edge.
Cornet has Williams’ number more than any other current player, having won four times in their seven meetings going into Monday. But there’s a big-time asterisk there.
The first win was a walkover in Rome all the way back in 2008. The other three came in 2014: a straight-sets win in Dubai, a crazy win at Williams’ whacked-out Wimbledon after Williams won the first set (that was the one where she had to retire from the doubles because of wooziness) and a retirement win at 5-6 in the first set in Wuhan, China, later in the season.
“I don’t know if I like to play her or she doesn’t like to play me, but there’s got to be something there because every time it’s a big match,” Cornet said. “At the Olympics eight years ago, I lost to her 6-4 in the third when I was just 18 years old. After, I beat her three times in 2014. I can’t really explain why. All good for me, but today, I lost.”
If you believe in omens, the win wasn’t necessarily a good one. After Williams beat Cornet at the Beijing Olympics, she lost in the next round to Elena Dementieva of Russia.
But given she is 4-0 against her next opponent, Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, there’s probably no reason to worry. Svitolina still may have no idea The Serena Express is about to derail her.