AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn
NEW YORK (AP) — A decade or so ago, Serena and Venus Williams ruled tennis together, swapping the No. 1 ranking and meeting in Grand Slam final after Grand Slam final.
Serena, the younger of the two, still holds a spot at the top of the game.
Venus has not been there for quite some time.
So there was a turn-back-the-clock feel to Day 1 at the 2013 U.S. Open, when both sisters were about as good as can be, dropping a combined four games in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Venus, now ranked 60th, beat 12th-seeded Kirsten Flipkens 6-1, 6-2 Monday afternoon, and then Serena reduced 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone to seeking comfort from a ball boy’s hug during a 6-0, 6-1 runaway under the lights at night.
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.”
For years and years, a first-round victory by Venus at a major tournament would hardly merit a mention. She has won seven Grand Slam titles and was the runner-up another seven times (six against Serena).
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, Venus entered this U.S. Open having won a total of three matches over the past five major tournaments. Plus, in Flipkens, she was facing a semifinalist at Wimbledon last month who beat Venus on a hard court this month.
Looking very much like the player she used to be, Venus smacked serves at up to 120 mph, returned superbly, and covered the court well enough to hit a handful of swinging volley winners.
“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.”
There were bumpy patches early in the second set, when Venus faced eight break points, but she saved seven. At 2-all, Venus faced her final 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, Venus shouted, “Come on!” Venus 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 — Venus showed she’s still capable of big shots at big moments.
“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.”
She was No. 1 in 2002, but 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, Venus lost in the first round in two of her previous four appearances at majors.
Her match was the day’s second in the main 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, however, when the No. 1-ranked and top-seeded Serena won the first eight games, prompting Schiavone, in a brief moment of levity, to walk behind a baseline and envelope a ball boy in a full embrace.
“I don’t need a hug in that moment,” Schiavone joked afterward. “I need a game.”
It was that kind of evening for Schiavone, an often-demonstrative player who is certainly no pushover: In addition to her triumph at Roland Garros three years ago, she was the runner-up there a year later, and twice was a U.S. Open quarterfinalist. Ranked as high as No. 4, she is 54th this week.
“I knew playing a former Grand Slam champion in the first round was a really, really tough draw,” Serena said, “so I tried to be super serious.”
All told, the match took merely an hour. And it ended right in time, as far as Serena was concerned, because a light rain began to fall at the finish. Eventually, play was suspended for the day, and the last match of the night session, 17-time major champion Roger Federer vs. 62nd-ranked Grega Zemlja of Slovenia, was postponed until Tuesday.
Others in action Tuesday include the top-seeded man, Novak Djokovic, and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka.
When Schiavone finally got on the board more than 50 minutes into her match against Serena, hitting a volley winner to hold serve and win her first game, she swung her right fist in a celebratory roundhouse punch and shouted. Her face then broke into a wide smile while she strutted to the sideline, and she tossed her racket toward her changeover chair.
“It was very, very nice to win a game,” Schiavone said. “For the first time in my life, I felt joy from winning a single game.”
At Serena’s news conference, she was asked by an Italian reporter: “Did you really want to win 6-love, 6-love against the poor Schiavone?”
That drew a chuckle from Serena, who responded: “No, it wasn’t that. I was just out there, trying to be focused.”
She is seeking her fifth U.S. Open championship, and 17th Grand Slam title overall. She improved to 61-4 with a tour-leading eight titles this season.
It’s been tougher going for Venus, who is only 12-7 and last won a tournament in October. In Grand Slam play, she lost in the first round of the French Open in May, then withdrew from Wimbledon for the first time in her career.
If Venus and Serena both win three more matches at the U.S. Open, they would set up an all-Williams quarterfinal.
That seems a long way away at the moment. So does the stretch when they played each other in four consecutive Grand Slam finals in 2002-03.
“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,” Venus said. “But I know I can do that.”