Serena Williams began her quest for a 24th Grand Slam singles title with a hard-fought win over Kristie Ahn in the French Open first round.
Sixth seed Williams, who turned 39 on Saturday, overcame a rusty start to beat her fellow American 7-6 (7-3) 6-0.
Once she came through a 74-minute opener, Williams began to play with more belief and clarity as she swept Ahn aside in a 27-minute second set.
Williams will play Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova in the second round in Paris.
Pironkova, 33, was handed a wildcard by Roland Garros organisers after a memorable run to the US Open quarter-finals – where she lost to Williams – in her first tournament since 2017 after giving birth.
Pironkova set up the rematch with a 6-3 6-3 win over Germany’s Andrea Petkovic.
Age is not diminishing Williams’ desire
Williams might have celebrated turning an age at which most players have long retired, but she has lost none of her appetite when it comes to trying to land another Grand Slam title.
One more major triumph would allow her to equal Australian Margaret Court’s long-standing record and become the fourth mother to win a Grand Slam singles title.
The passion of the American is undiminished, saying in the build-up that she would not play on the clay courts in Paris if she did not believe she could win.
Going out in the semi-finals at the US Open was – by her standards – regarded as a disappointment and even though she is not considered one of the favourites on her least comfortable surface, anything other than victory at Roland Garros will also be viewed by her as another failure.
That desire was illustrated perfectly by a fervent celebration – a ripping roar and shaking clenched fists – after she edged a nervy opening set to gain the upper hand against an inspired Ahn.
And the relief of taking the lead allowed Williams to loosen up in the second set.
“If it’s not perfect, then it’s not enough for me. That is something I have been working on,” said Williams, who is aiming for a fourth French Open singles title.
“I feel I was able to get over that in the recent past couple of months. I feel like that has been what I needed to deal with, just understand that my level of greatness is sometimes crazy high and a win is a win.”
Williams had not played on clay since losing to 20-year-old Sofia Kenin in the third round at Roland Garros in June 2019 and looked understandably rusty as world number 101 Ahn made a confident start.
Ahn lost in straight sets when the pair met at the recent US Open but, after breaking for 2-1 lead and then again for 5-4, had the chance to serve out the opener.
Williams, however, broke back at the crucial time and then dominated the tie-break as Ahn’s chance disappeared.
That saw the confidence of the two players completely switch. Williams looked more assured as her footwork and shot-making improved, racing towards victory with Ahn wilting.
Williams had a slight wobble in what proved to be the final game, eventually sealing the victory with an ace out wide on her fifth match point.
“I do think her level dropped a little bit in the beginning of the first set and I took advantage of that,” said Williams.
“I think her level was so high in the first set that I just needed to lift my level more than what I did.”
‘Williams will leave the court happy’ – analysis
Miles Maclagan, former British Davis Cup player, on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra
I think Serena Williams will leave the court happy. It was a scrappy, difficult first set but to be back on the clay, in a tournament she wants to win, there would have been nerves.
Her opponent played good tennis but, in the last 20 minutes or so after the tie-break, Williams played very good tennis. Her movement was much more fluid.