Serena Williams’ serve leads to win in Paris

French Open 2021: Serena Williams' serve leads to win in Paris
Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports
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PARIS — Her superior serve back at its unreturnable best, Serena Williams was in full control of her French Open match – until, suddenly, that stroke wasn’t as dominant and neither was she.

And then, pushed to a third set by an opponent offering up all sorts of spins and speeds and angles, Williams regained her form and forged to the finish.

Williams got back to the third round at Roland Garros, where she has won three of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles, by pulling away to beat 174th-ranked Mihaela Buzarnescu 6-3, 5-7, 6-1 Wednesday on Court Philippe Chatrier.

Her serving, especially at the outset, was much better than in her first-round win. In that one Monday, she only put 51% of first serves in play and got broken three times in 10 games.

“I’ve been practicing my serve a lot. I’ve been playing, in practice, unbelievable on my serve. The other night was, `Wooooow,’ she said, rolling her eyes. “I’m glad it came better today. My coach told me it’s good that I’m doing it well in practice, because eventually it will be good in the match.”

It sure was, especially at the outset against Buzarnescu, who didn’t manage to put any serves in play in the first game.

By the end of the first set, Williams had won 20 of 23 points she served.

In the second set, things changed.

Buzarnescu made the measure of those powerful offerings and managed to get herself right back in the thick of things, breaking twice in a row.

“She’s one of the best servers in the world. It’s not easy to read her serve. Being the first time playing against her, it took a while for me to adjust my position in the court on the return,” said Buzarnescu, who called it “a dream” to be able to face Williams. “I’m just happy I was able to figure it out. I hope next time, I can do it earlier.”

After a bit of a reset, Williams got going back in the right direction.

“I knew going into the third, I just had to zero in on those important points,” she said. “If I could just take those, it would be an easier time for me.”

Last year, Williams withdrew before the second round in Paris because of an injured left Achilles. No such issues so far this time, and the 39-year-old American covered the court well, although she did have some tape on her right thigh.

Next for the No. 7-seeded Williams is an all-American matchup against Danielle Collins, who overwhelmed Anhelina Kalinina 6-0, 6-2.

It was a strong French Open afternoon for the U.S., including victories in the women’s draw for No. 23 Madison Keys and in the men’s for No. 31 John Isner, No. 32 Reilly Opelka and unseeded players Stevie Johnson and Marco Giron.

It’s the first time that four American men made it to the third round at Roland Garros since a half-dozen got there in 1996 – and Taylor Fritz still has to play his second match on Thursday.

Another American, Tommy Paul, got off to a good start against No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, a two-time Grand Slam runner-up, in the night session Wednesday. But Medvedev, who was 0-4 for his career at the French Open until this week, came back to eliminate Paul 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3.

Medvedev will take on Opelka for a spot in Week 2.

Earlier in the day, down 4-1 in the third set, 2020 U.S. Open runner-up Alexander Zverev decided it was time to shorten his match.

He was determined to avoid another lengthy fight following a five-setter in the first round, so he applied pressure on qualifier Roman Safiullin. The sixth-seeded German won the next game at love, broke back by pushing his rival into unforced errors and was nearly flawless in the tiebreaker.

The reward was a 7-6 (4), 6-3, 7-6 (1) victory to advance to the third round.

“I’m happy to be through in three sets,” Zverev said. “I think it’s going to be important for me during the course of this tournament.”

Zverev, facing a rival he has known since they were juniors, dropped his serve three times on Court Suzanne Lenglen and hit 10 double-faults. But a 25-shot rally in the final tiebreaker epitomized Zverev’s hang-in-there attitude.

First on the defensive, Zverev turned it around and won the point with a passing shot.

Others moving into the third round included qualifier Henri Laaksonen, who hit 53 winners to upset 11th-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut 6-3, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, and Kei Nishikori, the 2014 U.S. Open runner-up, who was taken to five sets for the second consecutive match before downing the big-hitting Karen Khachanov 4-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.

The 23rd-seeded Khachanov was treated by a trainer in the fifth set after cutting his right middle finger by hitting his racket strings in anger.

Nishikori extended his record in five-set matches to 26-7.

French players get life bans for fixing

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LONDON — Two low-ranked French players were banned from the sport for life after being found guilty of match-fixing by a hearing officer.

Jules Okala, a 25-year-old with a career-best ATP ranking of No. 338, and Mick Lescure, a 29-year-old with a top ranking of No. 487, “admitted multiple charges,” the International Tennis Integrity Agency announced.

Neither player is allowed to compete at – or even attend – any sanctioned event again.

Okala was found guilty of seven match-fixing charges and fined $15,000 in addition to the permanent suspension. Lescure was found guilty of eight charges and fined $40,000 on top of the ban.

The punishments come after both players were involved in law enforcement investigations in France and Belgium, according to the sport’s integrity agency.

Ash Barty wins Australia’s top sports award for second time

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Ash Barty’s Australian Open singles title in January was enough to ensure the former top-ranked player won Australia’s most prestigious annual sports award — despite retiring from the game less than two months later.

Barty has been given The Don Award, named after its most accomplished and famous cricketer Don Bradman.

Barty shocked the tennis world in March when she announced her retirement at the age of 25. The three-time major winner was the No. 1-ranked female player at the time of her retirement decision.

The Sport Australia Hall of Fame’s Don Award is given to an athlete or a team “which has provided the most inspiration to the country through performance and example in the past year.”

Barty (2019, 2022) joins Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sally Pearson (2012, 2014) and Olympic champion pole vaulter Steve Hooker (2008, 2009) as a multiple winner of the award.

Barty said she had decided before the Australian Open started that it would be her last major tournament.

“This year was certainly my most enjoyable Australian Open . . . because it felt free,” Barty said in a television interview. “I played without consequence, I played like a little kid. In my eyes, there was no pressure. It was just about me trying to redeem myself, in a way, and playing how I’d always wanted to play – go out there and play like the kid that fell in love with sport.”

Barty said she has no plans to return to tennis.

“In my mind there was never going to be a perfect ending, but it was my perfect ending,” Barty said of her retirement. “It was never about finishing on a win or on a really high emotional feeling. It was just about collectively, I felt it was right.

“Now (that decision) has led to nine months of just an incredible life off the court. It’s been amazing.”

Barty married her long-time partner Garry Kissick in late July. She also golfs frequently and is reported to be playing off a handicap of low single figures.