NEW YORK -- The condition of Serena Williams' tender right shoulder has been the subject of serious speculation early and often at this 2016 edition of the US Open.
In her first-round match, she sacrificed a little serving power for pinpoint placement, raising even more questions.
The emphatic answers were provided Thursday night on Arthur Ashe Stadium, when the No. 1 seed faced fellow American Vania King. Three of Serena's first four points came on aces -- at 102 mph, 114 mph and, finally, 115 mph -- all out wide.
It was a harbinger of disaster for King, who went fairly quietly, 6-3, 6-3. Serena, however, did not seem happy with the level of her play.
"Well, every match, at least for me, I like to do the best I can," she said in her on-court interview. "So, hopefully, I'll be able to play better as time goes on."
Some takeaways from the match that vaulted Serena into a third-round match against Johanna Larsson:
No one brings the star power like Serena: Unlike, say, actress Bridget Moynahan and chef Marcus Samuelson, Beyonce and husband Jay Z weren't in the prematch celebrity list for the evening session. But the powerfully musical couple, who spend a fair amount of time in New York, were sitting right there in the back of Serena's box. Serena appeared in Beyonce's "Lemonade" video, and apparently, this was payback. Serena's 22 Grand Slam singles titles are one more than Jay Z's 21 top-10 songs. Beyonce trails the field with only 16.
It's a bad matchup for King: They had only met once previously, right here at the US Open two years ago. With a huge advantage in the category of firepower, Serena dropped only a single game that time -- winning in 56 minutes. This time, the No. 87-ranked player lasted nine more minutes. Serena hit 13 aces, and one serve was clocked at 121 mph on Thursday. She hit 38 winners (on a total of 65 points). King, in her 37th Grand Slam appearance, had only four winners. She has yet to advance beyond the third round.
Serena looks dialed in -- and it's early: If you're going to catch her, it's advisable to do it sometime in the first week. But what looked like a horrible draw -- the unseeded but dangerous Ekaterina Makarova in the first round -- was a blessing. Serena came out and slammed the Russian 6-3, 6-3 in 63 minutes. More importantly, Serena was thoroughly composed, almost meticulous in her play and comportment. The shoulder? "So far," Serena said, "so good."
The pressure will become greater, later: A year ago, on the cusp of a calendar-year Grand Slam, Serena succumbed to nerves. She said she's more relaxed this year, and it's probably true. Still, as she gets closer to the title here, the more history will come into play. A victory, as tennis fans know by now, would give her 23 major singles, one more than the Open era record of 22 that she shares with Steffi Graf. Not as well-known is the fact she can surpass Chris Evert's six US Open titles and take the Open era record of seven here for herself.
Oh, and did we mention the No. 1 thing? Serena is already the oldest player to ever hold the No. 1 ranking. With a win here, she can hold on to it for a little longer than her current 183 consecutive weeks. If No. 2 seed Angelique Kerber reaches the quarterfinals, a distinct possibility, Williams would need to get to the final to have a chance to retain the top spot. If Kerber and Serena meet in the final, the winner would walk away with No. 1. Wouldn't that be fun?