NEW YORK (AP) — 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 Monday to reach the second round at Flushing Meadows.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
Venus Williams has spent 11⁄2 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.