Serena back to her old self on court

It’s said of the Williams sisters, when they play, they win. Not always true but the idea is holding up at the Sony Ericsson Open where, under cloudless skies Monday, Serena produced more than the occasional puff of smoke with her serve as she battled past Australia’s Sam Stosur, 7-5, 6-3.

Creating a record for the women’s game for aces in two sets, Serena cranked out 20 of them as she overcame the player who had defeated her in the final of the US Open last September. Trailing 2-4 in the first set of a well-played duel, Serena unleashed her forehand to such good effect that Stosur was forced back on her heels and could never regain the initiative.

The Australian made a brave effort at getting back into the match when Williams served for it at 5-3 and went down 0-40. Stosur had one more chance for a break back but was finally undone by a Serena drop shot. Asked where that shot came from, she replied, “I have a good drop shot. I just never use it. I don’t know why. I was like, ‘Is it going to go over? Oh, is she going to get it?’”

From her demeanor in the press conference, one sensed Serena is back in a competitive mindset, a mental state that does not come automatically after so long away from the game. This is only her second tournament this year after losing in the fourth round of the Australian Open and she has not played here in Miami — where she has won the title five times — since 2009.

She wasn’t going to be drawn into anything harking back to the controversial yell she let out after hitting a shot against Stosur at the US Open. After being deprived of the point, she abused the umpire and was docked a penalty point.

Playing a straight bat to all questions relating to that incident, she said, “It wasn’t in my mind. I just thought, ‘This is a new game.’ I thought it was a high quality match.”

And no thought of revenge against someone who had taken her title? That one was played back a little harder.

“No, I don’t think she took my title,” Serena said. “She went out and won the title. I wasn’t defending champ or anything. She played really well and she’s a really good player.”

It seems that Serena is on a mission to re-define her image. The issue came up when she was asked about lifting her racket to Stosur in the form of an apology after she made an incorrect challenge over a line call.

“I always do kind out of habit,” she replied. “I don’t get enough credit for being, you know, a super nice person and clapping on good points. They only focus on me yelling at umpires. I’m actually an unbelievable professional out there.”

Some will not agree but there is a body of evidence to back that assertion.

Earlier Maria Sharapova had continued her recent run of good form by hanging tough in the face of some stiff opposition from her fellow Russian, Ekaterina Makarova, to win 6-4, 7-6 (3).

There was a game that lasted some 15 minutes at 3-3 in the second set that almost turned the match around because Sharapova lost her serve after double-faulting four times. But, despite the depth and speed of Makarova’s ground strokes, Sharapova lunged and chased and broke a second time to send herself through to a quarterfinal against the reigning French Open champion Na Li of China, who beat Sabine Lisicki 3-6, 6-4, 6-2.

First up on the Grandstand court, Mardy Fish, a self-professed early morning person, scored a morale boosting victory over Kevin Anderson, the Chicago-based South African who had won the Delray Beach title three weeks ago. Well satisfied with his 6-4, 6-3 victory, Fish revealed that he had hired his doubles partner, Mark Knowles, as his coach.

“We have been friends for a long time,” Fish said of the 40-year-old Bahamian who is now the longest serving pro on the tour as a player. “He’s one of the best guys around and he has a ton of knowledge.”

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic did the expected and defeated his friend and Serbian Davis Cup colleague Victor Troicki 6-3, 6-4 and will now play Frenchman Richard Gasquet who beat a Spanish newcomer Albert Ramos 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.