NEW YORK – For years and years, a first-round victory by Venus Williams at a major tournament would hardly merit a mention.
She is, after all, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion. She’s been the runner-up another seven times.
She was ranked No. 1, owns Olympic gold medals, and is second to her younger sister Serena among active women in several key categories, including Grand Slam match wins, with 215.
And yet nowadays, at age 33, two years removed from being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that saps energy, hampered much of this season by a bad lower back, and her ranking down to 60th, Williams entered Day 1 at the 2013 U.S. Open having won a total of three matches over the past five Grand Slam tournaments. Plus, she was facing 12th-seeded Kirsten Flipkens, who was a semifinalist at Wimbledon last month and beat Williams on a hard court this month.
Looking very much like the player she used to be, Williams smacked serves at up to 120 mph, returned superbly, covered the court well enough to hit a handful of swinging volley winners, and beat Flipkens, 6-1, 6-2, on Monday to reach the second round at Flushing Meadows.
Flipkens, for one, was not surprised in the least to see Williams play that way. To Flipkens, this was not an upset – no matter what the rankings indicate.
“If Venus is there – if she’s fit, if she’s focused – she’s a top-10 player,” Flipkens said. “Everybody who knows a little bit of the game of tennis can see that. Today, she was like a top-10 player.”
Williams, who topped the WTA rankings in 2002, hasn’t cracked the top 10 since she was No. 9 in March 2011. She hasn’t been past the third round at a Grand Slam tournament since a fourth-round exit at Wimbledon later that year. Indeed, Williams lost in the first round in two of her previous four appearances at majors, including at the French Open in May; she sat out Wimbledon for the only time in her career in June.
“I stay positive because I know I can play great tennis. Sometimes, you just have to go through more than what you want to go through,” the American said after winning the first four games and the last four games against Belgium’s Flipkens. “Sometimes you have to have losses.”
Their match was the day’s second in Arthur Ashe Stadium, and owing perhaps to the early hour – or the stricter security measures, including new metal detectors, that led to long delays for spectators entering the grounds – there were thousands of empty blue seats in the 23,000-capacity arena.
The place was full for the night session, when Serena Williams began her title defense with a 6-0, 6-1 victory, a performance so thoroughly impressive that her opponent, 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, was prompted in a brief moment of levity to seek comfort by hugging a ball boy.
“I don’t need a hug in that moment, I need a game,” joked Schiavone, who was trailing, 6-0, 2-0, at the time.
Asked which meant more on this day, her own victory or her sister’s, Serena replied: “They’re equal. I definitely was happy to see Venus win. I really was happy for her. I know she’s been working hard. I know she had a tough opponent. For her to come through was just awesome. Obviously, I want to do well, too.”
The victory over Schiavone lasted exactly an hour, and light rain began falling right after it ended. Eventually, play was called off for the day, postponing 17-time major champion Roger Federer’s match against 62nd-ranked Grega Zemlja of Slovenia until Tuesday.
Earlier on Ashe, 12-time major champion Rafael Nadal delivered a straightforward, straight-set victory over 21-year-old American Ryan Harrison, part of a series of smooth performances by top players. Flipkens was one of two seeded women to lose, along with No. 29 Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia.
Three seeded men exited during Monday’s afternoon session: No. 11 Kei Nishikori, No. 27 Fernando Verdasco and No. 30 Ernests Gulbis.
Sloane Stephens, a 20-year-old American seeded 15th, very nearly was on the list of losers, dropping the opening set, then trailing 4-2 in the third and 3-1 in the closing tiebreaker, before coming back to edge 110th-ranked Mandy Minella of Luxembourg 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5).
Stephens heard plenty of support from the crowd, of course. She also picked out one particular voice in the stands that tried to remind her of at least one reason to be motivated.
“Someone yelled to me, ‘If you don’t get it together, this lady is going to take your second round prize money!’ I was like, ‘Oh, God,’” Stephens recounted.
She’s one of a crop of young women from the U.S. seen as potential successors to the Williams sisters as tennis standard-bearers for the country; the 19 Americans in the main draw are the most at a Grand Slam tournament in seven years.
By reaching the semifinals at the Australian Open in January, then the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, Stephens only increased expectations — particularly when competing on home turf.
“There’s more eyes on me,” said Stephens, who is based in Coral Springs, Fla. “Just the whole being here at the U.S. Open is a bit overwhelming. Literally everywhere you go, every single person knows who you are, as opposed to when you’re at the French Open or when you’re at Wimbledon.”
Venus Williams has spent 1½ decades in the spotlight, from the moment she showed up at Flushing Meadows in 1997 as a 17-year-old with white beads clackety-clacking in her braids and made it all the way to the title match. She won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2000 and 2001, then added three more titles at the All England Club in 2005, 2007 and 2008.
The only other time Flipkens played Williams came during that stretch, in the 2007 Fed Cup, and the Belgian lost in straight sets then.
“Today, I didn’t feel a lot of difference between this match and that match,” Flipkens said.
She was particularly troubled by Williams’ serving and returning. As is her wont, Williams stepped inside the baseline to receive second serves, putting pressure on Flipkens, who double-faulted six times.
Wearing a black dress with a colorful flower print, and fuchsia-colored braids tied in a bun, Williams needed all of 13 minutes to wrest control, taking 16 of the opening 21 points. Williams’ power-based game was only occasionally bothered by Flipkens’ slices.
There were bumpy patches early in the second set, when Williams faced a total of eight break points, but she saved seven. At 2-all, Williams faced the last significant test, a 16-point, 12-minute game with three break chances for Flipkens that were erased this way: 113 mph ace, 115 mph service winner, 116 mph serve that set up an errant forehand. As that shot from Flipkens sailed long, Williams shouted, “Come on!” Williams won the next point, a 15-stroke exchange, with a volley winner and shook her left fist.
On a day that began with a retirement announcement by James Blake — a former top-five player who also is 33 — Williams showed she’s still capable of big shots at big moments.
“I realize that I haven’t had a lot of chances to play this year or a lot of chances to play healthy this year, have had injuries and what have you, so I’m just going to have to keep working my way into it, maybe more than some of the other players,” she said. “But I know I can do that.”
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