Wednesday August 29th, 2012

Serena Williams, who won the U.S. Open in 1999, 2002 and '08, is 48-1 in first-round matches at majors. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

As part of the WTA's "Strong is Beautiful" campaign, Serena Williams has a 30-second ad that has her glammed-up and hitting her powerful backhand in slow motion. "Before every Slam I pick out seven outfits," she narrates. "Seven. One for every match I need to win. I wouldn't pick seven outfits if I didn't plan on wearing them all."

One down. Six to go.

Serena resumed her complicated 14-year relationship with the U.S. Open on Tuesday night and much to everyone's relief, it went off without a hitch. Williams put to rest any speculation that she might be exhausted from her heavy summer schedule -- 31 matches (doubles and singles) in two months -- by returning to Arthur Ashe Stadium to rout Coco Vandeweghe 6-1, 6-1 and advance to the second round. Williams converted 6-of-7 break points and committed only nine unforced errors in improving to 48-1 in first-round matches at Grand Slam tournaments, the only loss coming at this year's French Open. She will face Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in the second round.

Good things have happened to Williams on this, the largest court in tennis. Bad things have happened too. And, oh, yes, everything in between? Ashe has seen it all.

It was on Ashe Stadium that a 17-year-old Williams knocked off No. 1 Martina Hingis to win her first major title, in 1999. She became the first African-American woman to win a Slam since Althea Gibson in 1958.

It was there that she and Venus contested their first major final against each other, in 2001. Big Sister (Venus) won that one 6-4, 6-2 in 69 minutes, and Kid Sister (Serena) didn't exactly hide her disappointment at the result. A year later she would get her revenge, winning her second U.S. Open title.

And then there was 2004 and the infamous line call against her in her quarterfinal loss to Jennifer Capriati. That incident would revolutionize the game as the Slams adopted the Hawk-Eye review system. So we can all thank Serena every time we chuckle at one of Roger Federer's disdainful challenges. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

There would be another U.S. Open title in 2008, a stunning run during which she didn't drop a set. But that's the last good memory Serena shares with this court named after a man of grace, class and dignity. The court has been the stage of two incidents over the last three years that have come to define Williams. In 2009, she shook her racket at a line judge and blasted her verbally after being called for a foot fault during a tightly contested semifinal against Kim Clijsters. The line judge told the umpire what she heard Williams say (something about a tennis ball and a throat) and when all was said and done, Serena was defaulted was penalized a point on match point for Clijsters.

Then there was "The Come On Heard 'Round the World" in last year's final. Trailing Samantha Stosur by a set, Williams crushed an apparent forehand winner and started celebrating too early. At least that's what the umpire said. She invoked the rarely used hindrance rule to penalize Williams, and I'll never forget how everything came to a halt in the press room under the Stadium as we watched Serena's eerily calm rant unfold. Oh, no. Not again. She's going to do this again? She did and eventually lost.

Not even Serena knows how to process all the highs and lows of her experiences in New York. At times she has been contrite and apologized, seemingly embarrassed that she has somehow become the face of rage in tennis. At other times she has been defiant, almost combative, when anyone tries to suggest that she made a mistake. And at other times she has shrugged it all off and cracked jokes, saying that people actually tell her they thought it was cool what she did.

As she's gained distance from the Open and had time to process everything that's happened to her in the last few years, Serena has found that fighting New York, chasing the ghosts of the past that still linger on that court and taking on the critics who have questioned her position as a role model in tennis is just too damn exhausting. Now 30, she doesn't have the energy to fight every battle, put out every fire and carry a shield wherever she goes. No, it's time for acceptance. Accept the craziness that is the U.S. Open and just be prepared for it. Because as her history has shown, anything can happen here.

"My mind frame this year is that something is going to happen for sure because something always happens to me at the Open," Williams said during a lead-up tournament in Cincinnati. "Whether it's a horrendous line call that's 2 feet in or whether it's a grunt and I get a point penalized.

"Or a foot fault when I actually don't foot fault," she said as she rolled her eyes.

So this time around, what will Williams do when the blood starts boiling? She's going to keep it simple. She's going to count.

"I'm going to try to make it to 10," she said, laughing.  "But if I don't, I don't, you know? Hey, I can't stop who I am.

"I'm definitely going to start one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight and see how far I get." The best-case scenario for Williams is that she doesn't have to count to eight. Or nine. Or even 10. She just has to count to seven. One for every match she needs to win.

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