It was a series of firsts for Venus Williams at The Championships 2012. Her first event as a 32-year-old. Her first time playing as an unseeded player at Wimbledon since 1997.
Yet after one hour and 15 minutes on Court No.2, a more unfortunate statistic was recorded – Williams’ first loss in the opening round at The Championships in 15 years.
The former world No.1 went down to Russian Elena Vesnina 6-1, 6-3, a mere shadow of the gracefully athletic player who powered her way to five ladies’ singles titles at Wimbledon. However that’s not to discredit Vesnina, who produced a near-perfect grasscourt performance to hand the American her heaviest ever defeat at the All England Club.
Williams agreed with that assessment in her post-match press conference.
“First of all, I have to give credit to her. She played well, made hardly any errors, and served very well,” she said.
It was a tough opening assignment for the world No.58, with Vesnina an accomplished singles player once ranked as high as No.22 and enjoying solid results in the past on Wimbledon’s lawns.
Williams returned to tennis in Miami following a seven month-break from tennis to manage Sjogren’s syndrome, an auto-immune condition that causes joint pain and fatigue. While she has enjoyed some success – three quarter-finals and a rankings improvement of almost 80 places – her lacklustre performance today demonstrated the continuing effects of her illness.
The signs were bad for Williams from the word go. Vesnina broke serve twice in the opening three games to establish a 3-0 lead, and a rash of wild errors from the American helped her move ahead 4-0.
Two winners helped drag Williams out of a 5-0, 40-15 hole and onto the scoreboard at 1-5, but she was never convincing. Looking extremely drained as she trudged to the baseline to serve, Vesnina pounced on her lackluster deliveries to wrap up the opening set in 36 minutes.
Williams’ energy and playing level rose in the second set, and from there the games played out more competitively and went with serve. She even threatened to break serve in the fifth game when she went up 15-30.
Her fight in this match proved symbolic of her battle with illness – despite a seemingly hopeless situation, she retained a grit and determination to succeed.
“I'm up for challenges. I have great tennis in me. I just need the opportunity,” she explained.
“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. You know, that's just not me.”
However Vesnina, on this occasion, was simply too solid. Continuing to attack, she effectively moved her lethargic opponent around the court, powering her grounstrokes into the open court and frequently following her drives into the net to pick off well-executed volleys.
She warded off the threat to hold for 3-2 before out-rallying Williams to break for 4-2, and despite falling behind 0-30 in the final game, Vesnina came up with a delightful serve-and-volley play plus two winning serves to wrap up victory.
As the Russian celebrated her path through to the second round – where she will face third seed Agnieszka Radwanska – Williams left the court to a warm ovation.
And although she fell today, the American has many reasons to be positive. She remains alive in the doubles draw with sister Serena and will most likely return to the All England Club in a matter of weeks to contest the Olympic tennis event, her main motivation for her comeback.
Williams was indeed choosing to focus on the positives following her defeat.
“A lot of people wouldn't even have the opportunity to even come back, so I'm grateful for this opportunity. With each day that passes, that means I have another chance. If the sun comes up, I have a chance,” she said.
“I don't have time to be negative … it's not fun. I like to use the same time to be positive because it feels a whole lot better. And also it's easier to be productive when you're positive, so that's what I work on.”