ROME: Belgium’s Elise Mertens in action during her match against Venus Williams of the US at the Italian Open.—AP
ROME: Belgium’s Elise Mertens in action during her match against Venus Williams of the US at the Italian Open.—AP

ROME: Serena Williams began her French Open preparations with a routine 6-4, 6-2 victory over Swedish qualifier Rebecca Peterson in the opening round of the Italian Open on Monday.

Serena was back in action in only her fourth tournament of the season and the first since being forced to withdraw from the Miami Open in March due to a knee injury.

The 37-year-old Serena, a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, has finished runner-up at two of the last three majors but been unable to add to her tally since returning to the sport following the birth of her first child in 2017.

She book a match against sister Venus Williams in the siblings’ first meeting on European clay in nearly 17 years.

Venus, who won her only Rome title 20 years ago, defeated Elise Mertens 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (7-4) after more than three hours, requiring nine match points before eliminating her Belgian opponent.

The Williams sisters’ last match on red clay came in the 2002 French Open final won by Serena. In their last match in Rome, Venus won their second career meeting way back in the 1998 quarter-finals.

After an opening round exit at the Madrid Open last week, former world number one Garbine Muguruza scored her first win in over a month as she eased past China’s Zheng Saisai 6-3, 6-4.

She next plays either Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, the 11th seed, or American Danielle Collins, for a place in the third round.

It was not a good day for Chinese players at the Foro Italico with two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka crushing Zhang Shuai 6-2, 6-1, and next meets two-time defending Rome champion Elina Svitolina.

Chinese 15th seed Wang Qiang also fell to Czech Katerina Siniakova 1-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Former world number four Dominika Cibulkova, won her match 6-2, 6-3 against Aliaksandra Sasnovich, and next meets US Open and Australian Open winner Naomi Osaka of Japan.

Britain’s Johanna Konta swept aside Alison Riske 6-4, 6-1, and next plays Sloane Stephens. Italian wildcard Sara Errani fell 6-1, 6-0 to Slovak Victoria Kuzmova.

US 18th seed Madison Keys, a semi-finalist in last year’s French Open, beat Slovenia’s Polona Hercog 6-4, 7-6 (7-3), and next meets fellow American Sofia Kenin.

In men’s action, Italy’s top player Fabio Fognini wore a shirt featuring a design of Rome’s skyline during a 6-3, 6-4 win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and will next play either Moldovan Radu Albot, who beat him at Indian Wells, or French qualifier Benoit Paire.

Canadian Denis Shapovalov set up a clash with world number one Novak Djokovic when he beat Pablo Carreno Busta 6-3, 7-6 (7-5).

Defending Rome champion Nadal will have to wait to learn his second round opponent with the match between Richard Gasquet and fellow Frenchman Jeremy Chardy called off because of rain on Monday night at one set all 1-6, 6-4.

France’s 15th seed Gael Monfils lost 6-3, 6-1 to Spanish qualifier Albert Ramos-Vinolas, in 61 minutes and Fernando Verdasco produced a remarkable comeback to beat Britain’s Kyle Edmund 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.

Borna Coric rallied past Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-7 (4-7), 6-3, 6-4 in a matchup of two of the top young players on tour. Auger-Aliassime struggled with his serve, hitting seven double-faults to Coric’s one.

Also, Karen Khachanov overcame a partisan crowd to beat Italian wild card Lorenzo Sonego 6-3, 6-7 (1-7), 6-3; while last year’s French Open semi-finalist Marco Cecchinato was inspired by the home fans to beat Alex Di Minaur 4-6, 6-3, 6-1.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2019