Serena Williams saw the Auckland Open as the ideal event to return from a long injury layoff and work on her game ahead of the year’s first grand slam, while New Zealand’s largest city hoped her presence would take the tournament to a new level.
In the end, both were disappointed.
The 35-year-old former world number one, out of action for four months due to a persistent shoulder injury, was bundled out in the second round by American compatriot Madison Brengle.
The performance was hardly the best preparation for the Australian Open in less than two weeks’ time, especially since she said in her only media conference before the Auckland tournament that her goal was to add more grand slam titles before she brings the curtain down on her career.
Williams equalled Steffi Graf’s Open era record of 22 grand slam titles last year when she clinched her seventh Wimbledon crown and sits just two away from the all-time record held by Australia’s Margaret Court.
She played just two more tournaments after that victory on the grass in London, losing to Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina in the third round at the Rio Olympics then was upset by Karolina Pliskova at the U.S. Open semi-finals.
Williams then promptly shut down her season to have treatment on the injury.
The American arrived in New Zealand to a large media contingent and was feted as the biggest name to ever play a tennis tournament in the country.
She chose to skip media and sponsorship commitments to concentrate on fine tuning her preparations and shook off some of the rust in a less-than-convincing 6-3 6-4 victory over France’s Pauline Parmentier in the first round.
Against Brengle, however, she seemed unable to change her game plan and adapt to the windy conditions, which she later described as her “least favourite”, trying to blast her light-hitting compatriot off court.
Instead booming forehands flew high and wide and she committed 88 unforced errors.
“I don’t think I have hit 88 errors in my life,” she told reporters. “Eighty-eight unforced errors, you really need to go back to the drawing board because quite frankly it’s unprofessional.”
Apart from her inability to change tactics, her most dangerous weapon, her first serve, also lacked the usual velocity and numerous times she showed her frustration at the windy conditions.
Her desire to head to Melbourne for “better weather” and comments that Auckland was not a great place for her to “assess her game” caused something of a stir on Thursday, with the New Zealand Herald’s Michael Burgess suggesting they were a slight on the tournament itself.
“Overall, Williams’ time here was a disappointment,” Burgess wrote. “Her presence gave the tournament massive exposure, but Williams never gave the impression that she wanted to pay back her huge appearance fee.”