After runway entrance, Serena fights through sluggish French Open start

PARIS -- Serena Williams' ability to overcome the first-round sluggishness and nerves that can afflict even the most accomplished players is practically unparalleled. She needed that know-how Monday, when she said she felt as if she had "concrete blocks" on her feet in the early going against Russia's No. 83 Vitalia Diatchenko.

After letting out a couple of mighty roars of self-exhortation late in her unsteady first set and early in the second, Williams began moving more purposefully, serving more precisely and keeping points efficient and error-free. Diatchenko's fingers might smart for a while from the vault door slammed on her hand as Williams prevailed 2-6, 6-1, 6-0 and visibly grounded herself as the match progressed.

"I just was so frustrated at that point, because I have been training well," Williams said. "God, it was like, 'This isn't the Serena I have been practicing with or that I see every day.'" Her most important tactic, she said, was "hanging in there" and not caving to negativity.

Monday's win marked the start of what she hopes will be a good run. It was also Williams' first trip down the Roland Garros runway.

On Sunday, she posted a social media sneak peek of the latest apparel designed for her by Virgil Abloh in partnership with Nike: a flowing jacket, a layered, ruffled long skirt and a midriff-baring top.

The actual competitive version, a skirt and top connected by near-invisible mesh, wasn't quite as dramatic, although the flowy part of it clearly demonstrated how windy it was on the newly renovated Philippe Chatrier center court. The French words "mère" (mother), "championne" (champion), "reine" (queen) and "déesse" (goddess) are embedded in the print.

That's an imposing set of honorifics to wear, even for a 23-time Grand Slam event winner, and none of them guaranteed her an easy time of it Monday afternoon.

Speaking French to on-court interviewer Marion Bartoli after the match, the 10th-seeded Williams admitted she was anxious ("beaucoup peur") before stepping onto the only soil where she has ever lost in the first round of a major -- a stunning 2012 defeat to France's Virginie Razzano that still stands as her only blemish in 71 openers. "I told myself, 'Bon courage, Serena,'" she added.

Later, she told reporters she donned a black jacket and bundled up her hair in a superstitious attempt to shift her internal momentum.

This was just Williams' 10th match in a season hampered by knee injuries, and only her second outing on clay. Several days ago, a photograph of her in a wheelchair at Disneyland Paris while holding her daughter, Alexis Olympia, on her lap, circulated on social media. Her agent, Jill Smoller, said Williams simply didn't want to do a lot of walking.

"I was just off, basically," Williams said of the shaky start against Diatchenko. "And then instead of correcting it, I just kept getting worse, just to be honest. I knew I could only go up. That's what I told myself. I just gotta keep positive. ... It was just a strange start to that match, for me."

A year ago, Williams elicited audible gasps from the Chatrier crowd when she returned to her first major since becoming a mother, clad in a sleek, black catsuit, form-fitting from ankles to neck, with a bold red band at the midsection. This is who I am now, the outfit said. Like it or lump it.

Then nine months removed from frightening postpartum complications, Williams described her garb as a superhero costume and confirmed it had a dual, precautionary function: compression, which could help prevent a recurrence of the blood clots that have twice threatened her health.

A polemic later erupted when the president of the French tennis federation opined about the propriety of the catsuit. The subsequent debate was part of a season-long conversation about the outdated standards applied to female players, from what they wear to how they are treated after maternity leave.

A code-violation warning wrongly issued to France's Alize Cornet provoked another burst of well-placed indignation at the 2018 U.S. Open after Cornet dared remove and turn around a shirt she had inadvertently donned backward.

On a more substantive note, Williams and fellow high-profile new mother Victoria Azarenka have helped push the WTA to treat pregnancy more like the life-altering event it is. Rules implemented for this season allow women who take 52 weeks or more off to use their previous ranking in a dozen tournaments over three seasons. It is a win-win, not only on the respect front, but also because it boosts the chances that stars like Williams and Azarenka will stick around longer in tournaments.

Their sponsor, Nike, recently altered its maternity-related policies after coming under pressure after New York Times stories featured U.S. track and field stars Allyson Felix, Alysia Montano and Kara Goucher. Nike has since pledged to eliminate financial penalties incurred if a woman chooses not to compete while pregnant, or in the near aftermath.

Williams has been prominent in the company's female-empowerment ad campaigns.

"I'm glad that statement was made, and I know going forward, they're doing better," Williams said. "That's what it's about. It's about learning from mistakes and doing better."