NEW YORK – For years, a first-round victory by Venus Williams at a major tennis tournament would hardly merit a mention.
She is, after all, a seven-time singles champion in Grand Slam events. She was ranked No. 1, owns Olympic gold medals and is second to younger sister Serena among active women in several key categories, including major-tournament match victories 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 opening day at the 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.
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Looking much like the player she used to be, Williams smacked serves at up to 120 mph, returned effectively, covered the court well enough to hit a handful of swinging volley winners and beat Flipkens 6-1, 6-2 Monday to reach the second round at Flushing Meadows.
To Flipkens, it 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.”
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 Belgian Flipkens.
Later, at the night session, Serena Williams began her title defense with a 6-0, 6-1 victory, a performance so impressive 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,” said a joking Schiavone.
Asked which meant more, her victory or her sister’s, Serena replied: “They’re equal. I definitely was happy to see Venus win.”
The victory over Schiavone lasted exactly an hour, and light rain began falling 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 until Tuesday.
Blake to retire
American James Blake, 33, announced he will retire after the tournament.
Blake, who has a 9-13 record this year and is ranked No. 100 in the world, was ranked a career-high fourth in 2006.
“Despite the tears, I’m actually really happy about this,” said Blake, who has a match Wednesday. “I can do it on my own terms. Always wanted to do that. I thought about it a ton this year.”