ISTANBUL -- In her first match since hoisting the U.S. Open trophy in September, Serena Williams came through against the last woman to beat her this year, taking down Angelique Kerber 6-4, 6-1 in front of a lively Turkish crowd that greeted her with a standing ovation. She did so without her serve -- serving at under 50 percent for the match with a mere three aces -- struggling with her rhythm for most of the match.
"I felt okay," she said after the match. "Just kind of getting in my rhythm a little bit. Obviously trying to do more, but really just feeling my way around pretty much."
While some speculated the fast indoor surface at the Sinan Erdem Arena would amplify Serena's big serve, Day 1 made clear the court is playing slower than it did last year, which should play right into the strengths of the counter-punchers in the field like Kerber. Smartly, Serena didn't let the court play her, as she repeatedly took the initiative by getting to the net. She won 17 of the 20 points she finished at the net, and hit 26 winners to 20 unforced errors for the match.
It was a solid start to her WTA Championships campaign, where she'll try to put an exclamation point on what has been an incredible year. While the other seven players in the field took to Asia and Europe after the U.S. Open with mixed effect -- Petra Kvitova went 1-2, while Azarenka is on a two-title, 11-match win streak -- Serena stayed in Europe, withdrawing from Beijing citing a stomach issue.
"I definitely needed to rest. After that it was a really, really intense summer for me, and I think my body was really feeling it at the Open towards the end of the second week and even before that."
Despite the month-long layoff, Serena says she wasn't concerned about rust and that showed in her movement. She looked like she was being shot out of a cannon chasing down Kerber's ill-advised drop shots, and her reflexes at the net saved her on a number of cleverly improvised shots.
"I felt like I was ready to play,"she said. "I felt like I practiced too much, and if I hit another practice ball I'm going to go nuts. So I just really wanted a match. I was glad I played first on the first day. I was like, if I have another practice day, you know, I don't know if I can handle it."
You could say that Serena has nothing meaningful to gain by playing this week. The year-end No. 1 is out of her reach -- that will be decided between Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka -- and she's already the consensus pick for the player of the year, which nets her bragging rights more than anything else. Win in Istanbul and she's merely proven what we already know: She's the best player in the world right now. But if she loses here, particularly to Azarenka, the story changes, even if only slightly.
The two are guaranteed to play each other this week in group play and Serena says she's looking forward to it. Azarenka served for the match in the U.S. Open final, only to get an attack of nerves to let Serena back in the match. As they look forward to the rematch, one thing is clear: There is a whole lot of respect brewing between the two.
"She has not stopped since January," Serena said of Azarenka. "She's been so consistent this whole year. It's good to see someone playing so consistently throughout the whole year.