Serena Williams is still on track to begin the defense of her WTA Miami Premier title in Key Biscayne, Florida, although she knows she probably will have to manage persistent pain in her right knee.
Her opponents will have to manage the persistent pain of going toe-to-toe with perhaps the greatest female tennis player who ever lived, on a court where she’s already won the title seven times -- a court that represents the green, green asphalt of home.
If you’re Romania’s Monica Niculescu, who gets to play Serena for the second time in a Premier event in the span of two weeks, you’re probably giving thanks that Serena had a first-round bye, so that your trip to Miami wasn’t a complete waste of time. Or you may be wondering why fellow countrywoman Simona Halep has all the luck. She advanced to the final of Indian Wells last week when Serena pulled out of that tournament shortly before their scheduled semifinal meeting with a tender right knee.
“I didn't think I would be doing this interview today,” Williams told reporters the other day. She explained that she’s still receiving treatment and experiencing pain in the damaged knee. However, this being Miami, her mood improved substantially and her plans changed when she first picked up a racket again earlier this week. “I stepped on the court and I was just like, ‘I love this place.’ You know, I love playing at home. I live just down the road.”
In fact, if you laid the women Serena has beaten end-to-end, the line would probably stretch from Crandon Park to Serena’s home in West Palm Beach, meaning the five women who have beaten her in Miami comprise a special sorority.
Those women are, starting with the most recent winner: Caroline Wozniacki (2012 quarterfinals), Victoria Azarenka (2009 final), Venus Williams (1999 final; quarterfinals of 2005), Jennifer Capriati (2000 fourth round; 2001 quarterfinals) and Martina Hingis (1998 quarterfinals).
Before you Capriati fans start yelling, “You go, girl!” let me remind you that after that loss in 2001, Serena won her first Miami title the following year, and then defended successfully in 2003. Guess who she beat in both of those finals?
Since Serena bagged that first title, she’s made it to the final every year she entered but three. And she’s been pretty effective in general against the women who have stopped her in Miami. Capriati is five years older and had an advantage in her prime. She also left the game at the relatively young age of 28, denying a mature Serena more chances. Serena still came out on top, 10-7.
Venus? Serena leads that head-to-head 14-11, but the sister vs. sister dynamic was always a little weird. Wozniacki’s win over Serena in Miami was the Dane’s only triumph in 11 matches, and the only thing that can make Azarenka feel better about her 3-14 record against Serena is that Maria Sharapova hasn’t beaten the world No. 1 at all in 10 years (and is 2-17 overall). It’s all relative with Serena, right?
It’s no wonder Serena said in her presser: “I don't feel any pressure because I have won this title a few times, so I feel good about being here. When I hit on the court today, just something about Miami, you know. I just feel so good out here.”
Interested in some other details regarding Serena’s performances in Miami?
She has four wins over Sharapova in Miami and has lost just one set to the Russian.
Serena’s very first win in the Miami main draw was over the Czech Republic’s Denisa Chladkova, who was ranked No. 59. Serena won 6-4, 6-0. Chladkova is 36 years old now and still playing.
In 1999, at age 18, Serena defeated then No. 3 Monica Seles and No. 1 Martina Hingis, but she didn’t win the tournament. Venus stopped Serena’s run in the final 6-1, 4-6, 6-4.
Serena played former No. 1 and two-time US Open champ Kim Clijsters in Miami just twice. Clijsters never got closer in any set than losing 6-4 -- and that was just once.
The lowest-ranked player Serena ever defeated in Miami was No. 171 Zhang Shuai of China (second round, 2012). Zhang got five games in that one, three more than Clijsters collected in her first Miami meeting with Serena.
On two occasions, Serena lost to the world No. 1-ranked player only to bounce back the following year to beat the same woman. In 1998, the first year Serena played in the main draw, she lost a heartbreaking third-set tiebreaker in the quarterfinal to No. 1 Hingis. But with another year of experience under her belt, Serena beat No. 1 Hingis in straight sets in the 1999 semis.
The last time Serena played a No. 1-ranked woman was Justine Henin in 2008. Serena clobbered her 6-2, 6-0. The previous year, Serena had scratched out a tough, three-set final win over Henin.
Capriati was also No. 1 in 2002 when Serena finally got the best of her after a pair of losses in Miami. That year, Serena dispatched No. 3 Hingis in the quarters, No. 2 Venus Williams in the semis and top-ranked Capriati in the final.
Serena has never beaten any player love-and-love in Miami, but she logged the first of the three matches in which she lost just one game in her seventh main-draw match -- a 6-1, 6-0 win over then No. 25 Magui Serna of Spain.
There’s always a new goal to shoot for, right?