Venus Williams takes a tumble
WIMBLEDON, England — Racket bag slung over her shoulder, resignation written across her face, Venus Williams weaved through fans milling about on the sidewalks that players must traverse to get from Court 2 to the Wimbledon locker rooms.
The 32-year-old Williams had just absorbed a lopsided first-round loss at the Grand Slam tournament she once ruled, a poor performance that raised questions about how much longer she will keep playing tennis while dealing with an energy-sapping illness.
She trudged by as her hitting partner, David Witt, was saying: "It's tough to watch sometimes. I think everybody sees it. I don't know what else to say."
Looking lethargic, and rarely showing off the power-based game that carried her to five Wimbledon titles and seven majors overall, Williams departed meekly Monday with a 6-1, 6-3 defeat against 79th-ranked Elena Vesnina of Russia. Only once before — as a teenager making her Wimbledon debut in 1997 — had Williams exited so early at the All England Club.
She hadn't lost in the first round at any Grand Slam tournament in 61/2; years. Still, Williams said she'll be at the London Olympics next month and is "planning" to be back at Wimbledon next year.
"I feel like I'm a great player," Williams said, sounding a tad like someone trying to convince herself.
She repeated that affirmation as she continued: "I am a great player. Unfortunately, I had to deal with circumstances that people don't normally have to deal with in this sport. But I can't be discouraged by that. ... There's no way I'm just going to sit down and give up just because I have a hard time the first five or six freakin' tournaments back."
Later, as part of a slightly testy and awkward exchange with reporters, Williams said: "I'm tough, let me tell you. Tough as nails."
Her loss, in her first match since a second-round ouster at the French Open, was part of an odd Day 1, even if the true tournament favorites in action won easily: Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova. Among those sent home were sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych, the 2010 runner-up at Wimbledon; 11th-seeded John Isner; No. 16 Flavia Pennetta; and No. 18 Jelena Jankovic, who was rather easily beaten 6-2, 6-4 by Kim Clijsters, a four-time major champion who has been beset by injuries in her last season on tour and, like Williams, is unseeded.
Other seeded losers: No. 23 Andreas Seppi, No. 24 Marcel Granollers and No. 27 Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia, who was upset by 100th-ranked Jamie Hampton of the United States 6-4, 7-6 (1).
Truth be told, the biggest surprise might very well have been the way Isner — the highest-ranked American man — blew a match point, wasted a two-sets-to-one lead, dropped a tiebreaker on grass, and bid a 6-4, 6-7 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5 farewell to Wimbledon in the first round against 73rd-ranked Alejandro Falla of Colombia.
Then again, there's a pattern here.
It's the third consecutive major tournament that Isner leaves after a five-set loss, including 18-16 at the French Open against 261st-ranked Paul-Henri Mathieu. This from a guy who's best known for winning the longest match in tennis history, 70-68 in the fifth after more than 11 hours, against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010.
"I didn't put my opponent away. I had my chances, and I didn't do it. It's all on me. Was just not great on my part," said the 6-foot-9 Isner, who hit 31 aces to Falla's four. "I get out there sometimes, and lately it's happening quite a lot, and I get out there in the match and I'm just so clouded. I just can't seem to figure things out. I'm my own worst enemy out there. It's all mental for me, and it's pretty poor on my part."
Mental strength has long been viewed as Ernests Gulbis' weakness, because his strokes are as good as they come, but the 23-year-old from Latvia who is ranked 87th stood tall in a 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4) victory over Berdych.
"A lot of players mature later than others. Some mature at 15; some mature at 29. I hope it's somewhere in between; 23 is OK," Gulbis said. "If I hit the ball well, I hit stronger than everybody else. It is like this, you know. Maybe only couple guys hit the ball as strong as I do."