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Serena beats Sharapova for 19th time in row

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NEW YORK—Serena Williams was not about to let Maria Sharapova make a match of this.

So facing a break point early in the second set, Williams conjured up a backhand passing shot so good, so powerful, so precise, that Sharapova had no chance to reach it. Williams watched the ball land, and then raised a clenched left fist toward the night sky.

In her first match at the U.S. Open since last year's loss in a chaotic, controversial final, Williams stretched her winning streak against Sharapova to 19 matches with a nearly flawless performance that produced a 6-1, 6-1 victory yesterday.

She now leads their head-to-head series 20-2.

Williams won twice as many points, 56-28. She saved all five break points she faced and lashed serves at up to 115 mph. She broke five times.

Few players would have stood a chance against Williams the way she was hitting balls deep and true—and certainly not a diminished Sharapova, who is ranked 87th after missing much of this season with a bad right shoulder that needed surgery.

This was a showdown fit for a final, at least in theory: These two met in a title match at each of the other three Grand Slam tournaments but never had faced each other in New York.

Williams arrived at Flushing Meadows, where she's won six titles, accompanied by questions about her back, because spasms that flared up this month forced her to stop playing during the final of one hard-court tuneup tournament and pull out of another one entirely.

Few athletes in any sport have been as popular in recent decades.

Williams owns 23 major singles title, Sharapova five.

Both have a career Grand Slam.

Both have been ranked No. 1.

So, yes, there were plenty of other matches around the grounds yesterday, with Roger Federer dropping his first set of the tournament against a qualifier ranked 190th before coming back to eliminate Sumit Nagal of India 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, No. 1 Novak Djokovic opening defence of his title with a 6-4, 6-1, 6-4 victory over Roberto Carballes Baena, and 21-year-old American Reilly Opelka providing the biggest upset of the afternoon in his U.S. Open debut by eliminating No. 11 Fabio Fognini of Italy 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3.

And, sure, 2016 champion Angelique Kerber continued her rough Grand Slam year with a first-round exit against Kristina Mladenovic by a 7-5, 0-6, 6-4 score, while 2016 runner-up Karolina Pliskova and reigning French Open title winner Ash Barty both struggled through rough starts before emerging.

The Williams family only dropped a total of three games in two matches yesterday, because Venus beat Zheng Saisai 6-1, 6-0 earlier.

Nothing brought out the spectators the way Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova did, with full-throated roars greeting them when they walked from the locker room into a dimly lit stadium.

When the lights came on, Williams proved far more ready for prime time.

Only once before had Sharapova lost a night match in Arthur Ashe Stadium, going 22-1 until yesterday.

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