After both Serena and Venus Williams were absent from last week's Premier Mandatory in Madrid, the sisters returned to action earlier today at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia. René Denfeld is in Rome and recaps the sisters' first day on Italian clay this season, including their first doubles match in over one and a half years.
"Yeah, that was my first time playing against Coco. She's had a great year this year and last year and then just a great Fed Cup," Venus Williams said after her first-round victory over fellow American CoCo Vandeweghe.
In the end, Williams was able to get a straight-set win under her belt, 6-4 6-3, to start her campaign at the Foro Italico, hitting 13 winners compared to 16 unforced errors against a potentially dangerous opponent in Vandeweghe.
"I have hit with her a little bit at Fed Cup, but not really sure what to expect. I imagine that on the clay I have a little bit more advantage, just having played more matches on clay. I think that helped a lot."
It's the first event on European red clay in 2016 for the sisters, but that's hardly the only first for both Serena and Venus Williams this week — it's also the first tournament where they've joined forces in doubles in a very long time. After their last tournaments in Wimbledon and the US Open in 2014, the pair had not competed alongside each other last year and decided to team up here in Rome, with their sights set on the Rio Olympics in August.
"Well, I don't know. We haven't played doubles in a while", Serena Williams said in her pre-tournament press conference.
"Obviously we would love to play in the Olympics. I love playing with Venus. She's the best partner, and hopefully she feels the same about me. We make a great team. The doubles teams have gotten really good, so it's — we look forward to it. We have done well on clay. We have won Roland Garros a couple of times. We have won a few claycourt tournaments. Hopefully we'll be able to at least win a couple of matches here, just shake off the dust and keep playing."
Eventually, the 13-time doubles Grand Slam champions fell in their first round, losing to Andreja Klepac and Katerina Srebotnik 6-1 7-5. Particularly during the first set, both Serena and Venus struggled on serve, falling behind quickly early on. The second set saw both women start to gel better on court, but it remained a rusty performance by the Americans — something that proved costly against a well-attuned team like Srebotnik-Klepac.
"I just think we just didn't play our best, so I think we didn't play our best at the same time. That's not typical. Usually one of us is playing well. That helps the team a lot. Two of us are playing well, it usually goes our way", Venus Williams explained after their doubles match.
Venus Williams had spent the entire year of 2016 up until now playing with a bandaged upper thigh — so the double duty of playing both singles and doubles might not necessarily be helpful for the 35-year-old's body. However, if that meant having to play a lot of matches at Roland Garros, it's a problem Venus would be OK with.
"Yeah, I haven't done that in a long time. But I knew what was going to happen going into it. Even if you get tired, you have to try to ignore it. I felt okay.
I guess I don't have to worry about it anymore this week. Hopefully I'll have that problem for two weeks in the French. That would be an awesome problem to have!"
The world number one wasn't that keen on looking too far ahead, but rather empathized on her being in better shape and health — one of the reasons she decided to opt out of playing Madrid.
"I feel pretty good. Yeah, I wasn't feeling really good for the past several weeks and even the past few days. But right now I'm better. I will see how I'm doing when I step on the court for the first time, but overall I think I'm feeling a lot better."
While Serena Williams was not in the Spanish capital physically, she very much was the early talk of the town after appearing in Beyoncé's visual album "Lemonade", released just a few days in advance to the Mutua Madrid Open. Naturally, one of the first questions during the world number one's all-access hour on Sunday was about her moves in "Sorry".
"Well, it was a fun thing", the 21-time Grand Slam champion explained. "I mean, I knew the director really well. In fact, I have known the director since I was like nine years old. I know Beyoncé pretty well, so they were like, We would love for you to be in this particular song. You know, it's about strength and it's about courage and that's what we see you as. She told me that she just wants me to dance, like just be really free and just dance like nobody's looking and go all out. So that wasn't easy in the beginning, but then it got easier. And then, you know, we just did a few takes. It was really fun. I thought that particular song on the visual album was really a strong song, and it was also really fun at the same time. You know, I don't know if it solved social issues or anything. That's definitely a lot, but I definitely think it addresses some. I think her music is really bold. In particular this album I think is really bold and really strong. I was really happy to be a part of it."
Venus Williams on the other hand was almost blissfully unaware of her sister being featured in on the pop icon's newest album — until Serena herself asked her to watch it with her a few weeks ago.
"Oh, she looked amazing. Incidentally, I didn't know about that, either [..] We were just sitting on the couch and she says, Hey, you want to watch this thing at 10:00? I'm in it.", the older of the two sisters recalled.
"She's the cool one. I'm not the cool one. I've got to work on my cool points", Venus Williams finished with a laugh.
In tomorrow's night session, Serena WIlliams will open her Rome campaign, playing Germany's Anna-Lena Friedsam, whereas Venus Williams will have a day off until Wednesday. The 35-year-old will contest her second-round match against the winner of the match between Kiki Bertens and Timea Babos.