Serena Williams will open her bid for a third Cincinnati crown when she takes on Australia’s Daria Gavrilova at the Lindner Family Tennis Centre. Ohio has generally been a happy hunting ground for Williams, who boasts an impressive record of 18-4 in Cincinnati and she will surely be eager to get back to winning ways after a trying month. But Gavrilova is not short of quality and will be eager to claim what would rank amongst the biggest wins of her career. Who will come out on top?
Williams and Gavrilova have met twice so far in their careers and the numbers do not make good reading for the Australian. In their first encounter, which came five years ago in the first round in Doha, Williams hammered Gavrilova 6-2 6-1 and went onto reach the final (lost to Azarenka). She won comfortably again when their rivalry was renewed in Rio at the Olympics two years ago, again in the first round, with Williams running out a 6-4 6-2 victor.
Last time out
Williams’ had one of the best Wimbledon’s of her career, despite failing to reclaim the title she has won seven times. The American made an astonishing run to the final, but there Angelique Kerber was ultimately far too strong. Williams had proven much nonetheless. She then played in San Jose, falling to a heavy defeat at the hands of Johanna Konta and withdrew from Montreal for personal reasons, illustrating the challenges of combining motherhood and professional tennis.
Gavrilova made a fine start to the season, and although her results have tailed off somewhat since, she does come into the Cincinnati Masters in reasonable form. She impressed in reaching the third round at the Championships, although she will perhaps be disappointed by the nature of her 3-6 1-6 loss to Aliaksandra Sasnovich there. She then lost narrowly to Lucie Safarova in the first round in Montreal, not helped by 17 double faults.
How do they match up?
Though Williams is a player of rich quality in almost every area of the game, she is at her best when on the front foot dictating with her groundstrokes. Her forehand is probably marginally her best shot, but her backhand is a formidable weapon in its own right. Williams has also long been amongst the best, if not the outright best, servers in the game and Gavrilova will likely need to be at her very best on return to live with Williams.
She will also need to serve far better than she did against Safarova. It is a testament to her competitive spirit and quality off the ground that she was able to make it so close against the Czech whilst serving a solitary ace and 17 doubles. In fairness, the 5’5” Gavrilova doesn’t have the height to serve as Williams does, but tightening up that area of her game is a must. But she will bring no shortage of energy and consistency from the back of the court.
Williams’ return to the sport was never likely to be a smooth journey straight back to the top. There were always going to be setbacks and her defeat at the hands of Konta was just that. But she is also far too experienced and, frankly, far too good to be overly disheartened by that. Gavrilova will present her with another test, but this time Williams should pass it with flying colours. Expect the 23-time Grand Slam champion to book her place in the second round with a straight sets win.