Serena stutters, but still claims first title this year

ROME • Serena Williams returns this week to Paris, her second home, as reigning French Open champion and owner of her fourth Rome Masters title.

The American's victory on clay in Rome yesterday was a considerable comfort to her after failing to win three previous finals in an uneven start to the 2016 season. It was her first title in nine months.

On a cloudy Sunday afternoon in Rome, her compatriot Madison Keys began brightly, shone for a while then faded under late pressure.

Williams reminded us again that, at 34, she is still the best player in the women's game by more than 3,000 ranking points, with plenty more to come. She won 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 in 1hr 24min.

The 21-time Grand Slam singles winner fell short of the calendar slam last year in New York, and she botched the start of her 2016 campaign in Melbourne, so she goes to Roland Garros without the pressure of those expectations, at least.

This was the first all-American final in Rome since Billie Jean King defeated Julie Heldman 46 years ago. And Americans have not contested a WTA clay-court final since Serena beat her sister Venus in Paris in 2002.

Keys, 13 years and 23 positions adrift of the world No. 1, broke at the start, before Williams had properly warmed up, and tried desperately to resist the world No. 1's charge thereafter.

One of the Tour's light-hearted souls, Keys could only laugh at a pair of serves from comedy central in the first set, the first ballooning harmlessly into the wrong service box and the second dribbling into the middle of the net.

If Williams allowed herself a grin, it must have been a very quick one.

In the end, Keys out-aced the biggest server in the women's game, 7-4, but 32 unforced errors cost her dearly.

They fought hard through the tie-break before Williams, alert to the danger of an upset, found her old championship spirit in the second set.

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2016, with the headline 'Serena stutters, but still claims first title this year'. Print Edition | Subscribe