There were moments of tension and hints of trouble, but there were also lots of convincing serves and huge forehand return winners. To sum up, Williams was the more powerful, more focused player in the key phases, and her 6-4, 6-3 victory represented a major step up from Auckland.
It was a straight-set match but not a straightforward one, and it came on a classically hot summer afternoon where the ball kids’ legionnaires’ caps came in handy. The temperature in Laver Arena flirted with 100 degrees.
“I knew I had to be tough and strong coming out here,” said Williams, who will face Lucie Safarova, another former top-10 player, in the second round.
Safarova had to save nine match points in the second set on Tuesday before defeating Yanina Wickmayer, 3-6, 7-6 (9-7), 6-1.
Safarova said she lost track of the number of match points. “I heard it was nine,” she said. “I mean it feels great now, but it was a tough match.”
The last match Williams and Safarova played was the 2015 French Open final, which Williams won in three sets.
“She hasn’t played many matches, which can be an advantage for me,” Safarova said of Williams. “But obviously she’s a great player, and she can step out strong at any time. But I’m ready.”
The nerviest moments for Williams on Tuesday came late in the first set and again when it came time to close out the match. At 4-4 in the first, she won the first point of the game with a full-stretch backhand, sliced crosscourt, that was both spectacular and highly unusual. A little lucky, too, in that it came off the string bed near the top of her racket’s frame.
“After playing so many years, you deserve a little bit of luck,” she said in her on-court television interview with the former Australian doubles star Rennae Stubbs, one of the many players who have retired while Williams has played on.
This is Williams’s 17th Australian Open. Her fiancé, Alexis Ohanian, was sitting in the second row of the players’ box, applauding her successes.
Her older sister Venus Williams said on Monday that her younger sister was “actually getting a real life.” But Williams, long wary of revealing too much of her private life, has not been eager to focus too much on the changes ahead.
“I really haven’t thought about it too much, because I wasn’t even really going to think about it until after the tournament,” she said when asked whether she felt changed in any way. “I just kept saying that in February I’ll start looking at the bigger picture of my life. But right now, I’m just so focused that this is kind of all I can think about.”
Mouratoglou was asked whether Williams’s recent engagement might help her find an even better balance on court.
“We will see,” he said. “It’s difficult to prejudge what will happen, but what I can say is I prefer to work with a player who is happy than with a player who is not. In general, it’s better, but then with Serena we’ve both seen her unhappy playing her best tennis.
“She said it in her book. When she did her first Serena Slam, she was everything but happy.”
Williams wrote in her 2010 autobiography that her run of dominance in 2002 and 2003, when she won all four major tournaments in a row over the course of two years, was partly linked to her desire to channel into her tennis her frustration over a romantic disappointment.
“Exactly,” Mouratoglou said. “So she is so surprising, but in general, of course, it’s a good thing — a player who is happy in her life — so it should help her on the court.”
She is increasingly willing to use her fame to support wider causes, wearing an “Equality” T-shirt in honor of the Martin Luther King holiday in the United States. “We want to make sure we always continue to move forward and always have the opportunity to have equal rights for all,” she said, declining to comment when asked whether she feared what might happen under the Trump administration.
There is still plenty of tennis history within her reach. With 22 Grand Slam singles titles, Williams remains tied with Steffi Graf for the most in the Open era. They are just two behind the all-time leader Margaret Court, who has her name on one of the Australian Open show courts.
Williams’s name will undoubtedly grace some tennis temple in the future, as well, but for now she is still busy with the task and the matches at hand.
At 4-4 on Tuesday, she reeled off seven straight games, taking a 5-0 lead in the second set before Bencic recovered her balance and range and made the denouement more complex. She rallied as Williams suddenly looked hesitant and tight on her second serve. But at 5-3, Williams managed to make the right choices and the right shots under the sort of pressure she has been dealing with at the majors for nearly 20 years.
But this moment in her life is a moment apart. When she had held off Bencic and finished talking with Stubbs, she walked to the wall of Laver Arena to sign autographs while a beaming Ohanian — still in the players’ box — took photos of her with his phone from across the stadium where she has already won six singles titles.