TORONTO — Serena Williams can still recall the frustration she felt after losing her first professional tennis match.
That it happened in Canada — where she’d eventually enjoy plenty of success — made for a bitter first impression of the country.
Williams was competing in a qualifier at a Tier 3 tournament in Quebec City in October 1995, a month after turning 14, and lost to No. 149-ranked fellow American Annie Miller 6-1, 6-1 in quick fashion.
While she earned a single ranking point and $240 in prize money, Williams left Quebec with the realization that she had a lot more work to do before she returned to a pro tournament two years later.
“All I remember is I was incredibly nervous, I couldn’t believe I was playing,” Williams said. “It was just — I couldn’t deal with the nerves, it was a lot for me. I think I lost in like 30 minutes or something.
“And yeah, I just needed to go home and get a lot better. And then when I came back I was more ready to be able to play on the professional circuit.”
Williams, who’s logged 72 career titles over the 24 years since that first match, is competing at the Rogers Cup this week for the first time since 2015.
A three-time Rogers Cup winner in Toronto, Williams is looking forward to returning to the site of her 2001, 2011 and 2013 championships.
“I think whenever I come here I just have so much fun,” she said Sunday after her first official practice at Aviva Centre. “I love the city, I seem to know it really well. I’m here a lot even without the tournament.
“It’s great. I just love being here.”
One more Rogers Cup title would tie Williams with Monica Seles and Chris Evert for most by a woman’s player at WTA Premier event.
And Williams already has a slight advantage as she aims for her fourth championship here, jumping into the top-eight seeding — and gaining a bye into the second round in the process — when Petra Kvitova dropped out Friday with an arm injury.
Williams, a perennial mainstay atop the WTA standings for years, enters this Rogers Cup ranked No. 9 in the world.
She had to claw her way back into the top 10 over the last two seasons after returning from the break she took in 2017 (following an Australian Open title) to give birth to her first child.
Though Williams was back on the professional circuit roughly six months after her daughter Olympia was born, she said her perspective has changed since becoming a mother.
“It’s been just such an addition to my life as a person and as a professional tennis player. I have different priorities,” she said. “I schedule my life around my daughter and it’s cool because I always have something really spectacular to look forward to.
“Whether I’m winning or whether I lose a match, there’s just a whole different part of my life now that I’m just excited to go see.”
Williams has yet to win a tournament since the 2017 Australian Open, but she’s made two Grand Slam finals since then, losing to Naomi Osaka in the 2018 U.S. Open and to Simona Halep at Wimbledon last month.
The American superstar will open her Rogers Cup Wednesday against the winner of a first-round clash between Elise Mertens and Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
It will be her first tournament action since that Wimbledon final, and with an earlier knee injury mostly behind her, Williams feels she can elevate her game once more in Toronto.
“I’m feeling good, my knee is better,” she said. “So yeah, now that that’s better I feel like I can start doing a lot better.”
As the winner of an Open Era-record 23 Grand Slam titles, Williams has been solidifying her legacy on the tennis landscape for decades.
And the 37-year-old remains as passionate as ever about playing.
“I love my job and I love what I do and … it’s fun to be a part of an elite group of people who can go out and play just two people in front of an amazing crowd,” Williams said. “It’s not much incredibly longer that I’m going to do that and be able to do that.
“And there’s not many people who can do it so I’m just really proud to be a part of that.”
Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press