BEIJING, (Reuters) – Serena Williams made a stuttering start to her bid to topple Dinara Safina from the world number one spot with an error-strewn 7-5 6-4 win over Estonian Kaia Kanepi in the first round of the China Open yesterday.
Safina, who must at least match Williams’s progress over the next week in Beijing to retain the number one ranking, was equally unconvincing in her 6-4 6-4 victory over Italian Roberta Vinci earlier in the day.
Williams missed last week’s Pan Pacific Open with knee and toe injuries and looked far from her best in her first singles match since her rant at a lineswoman at the U.S. Open last month.
“I’m definitely not at 100 percent but I’m just fighting and trying to do the best I can,” Williams told reporters.
“It wasn’t easy but I felt like I was hitting a clean ball. She’s a really good player, she always plays tough.”
The Australian Open and Wimbledon champion made nine unforced errors in the 83-minute encounter against the big-hitting Kanepi, who broke the second seed three times.
Williams, though, always looked to have the edge on the big points and reached the second round of the $6.6-million event with a fifth break of serve when Kanepi went long, keeping alive the American’s hopes of reclaiming the top ranking.
“I would love to be number one,” added 11-times grand slam winner Williams. “But I also want to pay the price to be number one. It’ll come eventually. And if not, I’ll just keep trying.”
Top seed Safina’s victory over 59th-ranked Vinci was certainly an improvement on her first-round loss to Taiwanese qualifier Chang Kai-chen at the Pan Pacific Open last week but was by no means commanding.
Broken early in both sets, Safina immediately evened up matters with breaks of her own but was then forced to scrap it out with the dogged Italian to claim victory.
“I’m satisfied with the match but there is still room to improve my game,” said the 23-year-old Russian.
“I’m not thinking about (the ranking). I just think about the game. I think I am the 16th, 17th in the world to reach number one so it doesn’t matter when you achieve it.”
Fifth seed Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark suffered a first-round upset, crashing out 6-7 7-6 6-0 to Spain’s Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez.
Fourth seed Elena Dementieva, returning to the scene of her Olympic triumph last year, had no such problems with her opening match and dispensed with Germany’s Anna-Lena Groenefeld 6-4 6-0 in just over an hour.
Dementieva’s sixth-seeded fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova started the day by damaging hopes of a first local champion with a 7-6 7-5 defeat of China’s number two Zheng Jie.