On Monday, 8 Grand Slam champions were in action at the National Bank Open presented by Rogers, the WTA 1000 event being held in Toronto, Canada, where Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Elena Rybakina, Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens all came through their respective openers, but Venus Williams, Sofia Kenin and Petra Kvitova all fell at the first hurdle.
I guess there's just a light at the end of the tunnel, I'm getting closer to the light, so lately that's been it for me, can't wait to get to that light. I love playing though, it's amazing, but I can't do this forever so, sometimes, you just want to try your best to enjoy the moments and do the best that you can. Serena Williams
23-times major title holder Serena Williams, who has won this event 3 times, claimed her first singles match in 430 days with a 6-3 6-4 win over Spanish lucky loser Nuria Parrizas Diaz.
In only her second singles match since returning to action at Wimbledon in June after a year-long absence from competition, Williams was forced to dig deep during a nearly 2-hour long match played in hot and humid conditions.
“It’s great to be back in Toronto, I didn’t know if I would be able to play here again,” Williams said during her on-court interview after the win. “This being one of my favourite stops on tour, I was really happy to be here again.
“Thank you everyone. I love you!”
One of 14 Grand Slams winners in the main draw of the US Open warm-up event, Williams’ win over a player ranked No 57 in the world would have been routine in the past, but victories have been hard to find for the 40-year old American of late.
“I guess there’s just a light at the end of the tunnel, I’m getting closer to the light, so lately that’s been it for me, can’t wait to get to that light,” Williams told reporters after the match with a laugh. “I love playing though, it’s amazing, but I can’t do this forever so, sometimes, you just want to try your best to enjoy the moments and do the best that you can.”
The former World No 1 was sidelined for nearly a year with a torn hamstring, sustained at Wimbledon in 2021, and rumours about retirement persisted but she returned to competition earlier this summer playing doubles at Eastbourne with Ons Jabeur, reaching the semi-finals before withdrawing due to a knee injury for the Tunisian.
Williams returned to singles play at Wimbledon, where she lost in a 1st-round thriller to Harmony Tan from France, 7-5 1-6 7-6[10-7].
Currently unranked and needing a wild-card for entry, Williams showed her grit against Parrizas Diaz, fighting for every point and refusing to back down.
She needed 4 set points to clinch the opener, but she ultimately sealed it in signature style with an overhead smash.
She was tested even more in the second, which lasted 76 minutes and, as the Spaniard found her game to turn the tables, the match was levelled at a set-all, but Williams took control of the decider, stopping her opponent’s momentum in a wild 8th game of the set.
Serving at 3-4, Williams saved 4 break points to eventually take the 18-minute, 9-deuce game, and then convincingly landed the next two for the win.
There was no smile, just a look of relief as Williams raised her arms raised triumphantly.
“I’m just happy to get a win,” she said. “It’s been a very long time, I forgot what that felt like.”
Williams was broken just once in the match, saved 7 of 8 break points on the day, and notched up 7 aces, while she also managed to handle the changing weather conditions, as well as an ever-adjusting opponent across the net, and seemed to do so with relative ease.
Up next for the American will be either Olympic champion Belinda Bencic, the 12th seed, or Czech qualifier Tereza Martincova.
Meanwhile, Halep, the 15th seed from Romania, who retired from her 2nd-round match last week in Washington due to illness, needed just 61 minutes to secure a 6-0 6-2 win over Croatia’s Donna Vekic.
Halep breezed through the first set in 21 minutes and never looked back as Vekic grew more frustrated as the match wore on.
“It’s not about the result, it’s more about how I played,” said Halep, who did not face a break point. “I’ve been very aggressive and I played fast so that’s my goal and I am trying to do that every day.”
Halep, who won her two Canadian titles when the event was held in Montreal in 2016 and 2018, awaits either China’s Zhang Shuai or Spanish qualifier Cristina Busca in round two.
Rybakina, who followed her Wimbledon triumph with a first-round exit at San Jose last week, beat another Czech qualifier, Marie Bouzkova, 7-5 6-7(3) 6-1, to secure her first win as a Grand Slam champion.
Hard-hitting, Moscow-born Rybakina, now bearing Kazakhstan citizenship, needed 3 hours to overcome Bouzkova, though, who was fresh off her first career title in Prague a fortnight ago.
She fired 6 aces for a total 231 for the season, just behind Caroline Garcia on the aces leaderboard.
Next up for the Kazakh is an encounter with either American 10th seed Coco Gauff or Madison Brengle.
Elsewhere, No 16 seed Jelena Ostapenko from Latvia dusted off Ukraine’s Anhelina Kalinina, 6-4 6-2.
Ostapenko, the 2017 Roland Garros champion, took an hour and 13 minutes to improve to 3-0 against Kalinina on tour, while she also beat her en route to her Junior Wimbledon title in 2014.
The Latvian won 81 percent of points behind her first service, and claimed two-thirds of points when returning the Kalinina second serve, while the Ukrainian fired 6 aces but also coughed up 11 double-faults in the match.
Two separate rain delays and 90 minutes of huddling under roiling clouds bookended a dramatic confrontation between a pair of those major titlists in Sloane Stephens and Sofia Kenin, U.S. Open 2017 and Australian Open 2020, respectively, in an all-American contest.
Stephens saw a commanding lead slip away, regrouped, then almost coughed up another solid lead before collecting 7 of the last points in the 3rd set to prevail 6-2 6-7(5) 7-5 in 3 hours flat, bracketed around those double stalls.
She had been up 6-2, 5-1 before the match was stopped because of the rain, with hopes of fending off a 5th straight match defeat washed out.
On the other side of the net, Kenin, whose ranking has fallen outside the top 400, is competing in Toronto on an injury protected special ranking, after almost 4 months off recovering from an ankle injury.
Kenin pushed back hard in the middle frame, saving 2 match points in the 7th game, then turning back another pair of break chances before breaking Stephens on her 4th opportunity.
Following a hold, Kenin broke back at 5-5 and forced a tiebreak, where she took 4 of the last 5 points to drive the match into a final set.
Stephens opened up a 5-2 lead in the decider, but let her advantage slip away again, losing the next 3 games as Kenin saved a 5th match point, levelling 5-5, before Stephens finally whipped up 7 of the last 8 points to claim the hard-won match.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a match when I’ve had multiple match points over the course of the match, and I didn’t lose my mind,” a relieved Stephens said afterwards. “So I’m very proud.”
In the last match of the night session Jil Teichmann from Switzerland prevailed in her first meeting against former World No 1 Venus Williams.
Teichmann, ranked 21, took 1 hour and 15 minutes to eliminate the 7-time Grand Slam singles champion, converting 6 of her 10 break points to prevail and set up a 2nd-round meeting with World No 2 Anett Kontaveit.
At the age of 42, Williams was playing just her second singles match back on tour after a nearly year-long absence, when the 2014 National Bank Open finalist Williams fell in her first match against a Top 25 player since a loss to Ons Jabeur at Wimbledon last year.
Canadian 13th seed Leylah Fernandez kicked off the first night session match with a win over Storm Sanders from Australia, 6-4 6-7(2) 6-3.
The 19-year old left-hander had not lifted a racket in competition since the quarter-finals of the French Open in June, spending the 2 months rehabbing a Grade 3 foot fracture, most of the time in a cast, leaving her unable to even train.
The Canadian No 1 expected to be a bit rusty as she strives to find form with less than 3 weeks between now and US Open, where she was a finalist last year, while Sanders, known more as a doubles specialist and ranked 240, might not have posed too much of a threat, but Fernandez had never won a set, much less a match, in two previous appearances at this WTA 1000 tour stop.
The match with Sanders turned into a 2-hour, 42-minute dog fight, before Fernandez finally got past the Aussie.
“It was definitely one tough match,” Fernandez said. “It had everything. It had great moments, bad moments, it had spectacular moments from both players.”
“I’m so happy, I can’t express my feelings right now. I just know that I’m super-happy to be able to play here, in front of my home crowd, in front of Toronto and my family.
“I just thought about the sacrifices they made for me.”
Fernandez, whose father coached both Leylah Annie and her younger sister Bianca, with whom she is playing doubles this week, will face Beatriz Haddad Maia in the 2nd-round after the Brazilian got past Italy’s Martina Trevisan, 6-2 2-6 6-2.
In a Czech-on-Czech affair, 14th seed Karolina Pliskova, the runner-up last year at the Canadian Open in Montreal, defeated former French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, 6-3 6-4.
Pliskova is now 4-0 against her fellow Czech, having won nearly 70 percent of points returning the Krejcikova second serve, and slamming down 7 aces, while converting 5 of her 6 break points.
Krejcikova fought back from 5-1 down in the second set, reeling off 3 games in a row and forcing Pliskova to serve for the match for a second time at 5-4, but Pliskova regrouped and executed a commanding love hold to grab the win.
A 23-year-old Canadian wild-card Katherine Sebov, ranked 273, acquitted herself valiantly to take the opening set off Yulia Putintseva, another Russian-born Kazakh, but ultimately fell, 3-6 6-2 7-5.
American Alison Riske-Amritraj took out two-times Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, 6-2 4-6 6-3, while her compatriot, Asia Muhammad, prevailed 7-6(5) 6-4 over Madison Keys.