NEW YORK - Even Venus Williams was surprised at how well she played after two months away from the game.
"I'm not sure I expected to be so sharp," Williams said.
In powering her way to a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Vesna Dolonts at the U.S. Open on Monday night, Williams served at up to 126 mph and hit six aces. She won the point on 15 of 20 trips to the net. She compiled a whopping 28-7 edge in winners against the travel-weary Russian.
All in all, Williams looked far more dangerous than the average unseeded player does. And, yes, she is unseeded at Flushing Meadows because she's ranked only 36th after entering the tournament having played 10 matches over the past 50 weeks.
"I just want to play tennis," said Williams, whose seven Grand Slam singles titles include the 2000 and 2001 U.S. Opens. "It doesn't matter what the tournament is, I just want to play. Obviously the Open is huge, but I just want to play."
"I just need a chance to play. So the season hasn't really even started yet for me," she added. "It's been like a blip here and a blip there."
The 31-year-old American hadn't played a match since June 27, when she lost in the fourth round at Wimbledon. After that, she missed the recent hard-court tuneup tournaments because of a viral illness. She wouldn't say exactly what she was diagnosed with, but described it as "energy sucking."
Because she's unseeded, Williams could face some tough tests this week. She might meet 22nd-seeded Sabine Lisicki, a semifinalist at Wimbledon, in the second round, and 14th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova in the third round.
In other action, three-time U.S. Open champ Maria Sharapova picked up her game in time to avoid an upset against 102nd-ranked Heather Watson, rallying for a 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory Monday in the opening round.
After being thoroughly outplayed in the first set, third-seeded Sharapova let a 4-1 lead in the second slip, as well. She shored things up at 5-all in the second to pull out that set. She also led 4-1 in the third, but gave back a break. After that, Sharapova broke right back then served out her match against the 19-year-old Brit, who was making her first appearance in the main draw at Flushing Meadows.
Sharapova improved to 12-0 this year in third sets.
"In the end, that's kind of where it counts," she said after a match that lasted 2 hours, 34 minutes. "No matter how tired or whether you're playing your best tennis or sometimes your worst, you keep fighting for it."
"After I made some mistakes, I was mentally down," Kvitova said.
Last year's U.S. Open and Wimbledon runner-up, second-seeded Vera Zvonareva, defeated Stephanie Foretz Gacon of France, 6-3, 6-0.
Other women's winners included No. 13 Peng Shuai, No. 19 Julia Goerges and No. 27 Lucie Safarova.
But Sharapova-Watson was the best match of the afternoon.
With Watson nimbly covering a court that players say is playing slower than usual this year, Sharapova had to fight, and the match turned into a showdown of styles — the Russian's punishing, aggressive baseline game vs. Watson's grinding, retrieving relentlessness. The final stats were no surprise: Sharapova finished with 41 winners and 58 unforced errors, compared to nine winners and 30 unforced errors for her opponent.
"There's no doubt that she's a great up-and-coming player who showed some of her best tennis today," Sharapova said. "She played really smart in the first. I was making too many errors. Consistency at the end helped me get through the match."
Top-ranked Novak Djokovic wasted a chance to serve out the match and was beaten 2-6, 7-5, 6-4 by sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych in the Italian Open quarterfinals Friday.
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