The match ended with Serena Williams grinning at the net. She saved the worst shot for last in a rare first-round defeat and had to laugh. Still rusty in her return from pregnancy, Williams was unable to overcome a tough opening draw at the Miami Open and lost Wednesday to Naomi Osaka, 6-3, 6-2. On the final point, Williams thundered forward to attack an easy shot at eye level, whacked the ball six feet past the baseline and responded with a sheepish smile.
Not that motherhood has mellowed Williams. She left without talking to the media. The 20-year-old Osaka, who earned her first career title Sunday at Indian Wells, showed no signs of letup and overpowered the erratic Williams. Osaka had the stronger serve and worn Williams down in rallies working her from side to side. The matchup worthy of a final came about because both players were unseeded. Osaka is ranked a career-best 22nd, while Williams’ ranking is 491st after a layoff of more than a year.
Another new mother and former No. 1, three-time champion Victoria Azarenka, defeated Catherine Bellis 6-3, 6-0. Seeded players are in action beginning Thursday. Williams has been eliminated in the first round only four other times, most recently at the 2012 French Open. The latest defeat came at a tournament she has won a record eight times and considers her hometown event. The match was the last for Williams at Key Biscayne, 90 miles south of her home in Palm Beach Gardens. The tournament is moving next year to the Miami Dolphins’ stadium, where Williams helped with the ceremonial groundbreaking Monday.
Because of Williams’ ranking, she entered the draw as a wild card, and looked the part. She needed only eight shots to win the match’s first five points, but things became much more difficult after that. Playing her fourth match since returning to the tour, Williams was a step slow to balls in the corners and often late with her swing, while she put barely half her first serves in play. Early in the second set she resorted to her patented scream of “Come on!”, but the outburst failed to turn things around and she lost the next three games.
Typical of her struggle was an exchange midway through the last set. Williams scrambled forward to scoop a ball back, then retreated to hit an awkward, lunging overhead, and then stood and watched helplessly as a crosscourt forehand from Osaka whizzed past for a winner. Osaka, who has both American and Japanese citizenship and lives in Fort Lauderdale, was playing her idol for the first time but didn’t seem a bit fazed. She improved to 14-4 this year.
Things may get tougher for her in the second round, when she’ll face No. 4-seeded Elina Svitolina.