But, this time around, it was over for Venus in Paris swiftly and decisively in the opening round. In her first collision ever against countrywoman Sloane Stephens, Williams bowed out 7-6 (5), 6-1. Stephens beat her to the punch on just about every level. To put this defeat into perspective, consider these numbers: Stephens connected with 60% of her first serve while Williams was at only 52%. Stephens won 76% of her first serve points but Williams was successful on only 63% of the points on her first delivery. Stephens managed to capture 52% of her second serve points while Williams only made good on just 43%. Stephens produced 22 winners, one more than Williams. And Stephens committed a mere 14 unforced errors across two tidy sets; faltering frequently off the forehand, Williams made 30 damaging unforced mistakes.
The first set was pivotal. Williams began confidently, holding from 0-30 down in the first game on a run of four points, then breaking a slightly uncertain Stephens in the second game. It was 2-0 to the much more experienced player. But Stephens did not despair. An impeccably crafted backhand down the line winner gave Stephens a 15-40 opening in the third game, and she broke at 15 with an aggressive forehand crosscourt return drawing an error from Williams. Stephens was taken to deuce in the following game, but she released another outstanding backhand down the line winner, followed by an extraordinarily deep second serve that stifled Williams. It was 2-2.
The rest of that set was hard fought and well played on both sides of the net. Both players held comfortably to 3-3. They were striking the ball with venom off both sides. At this stage of the match, Williams seemed to marginally have the upper hand. She was not allowing Stephens time to take control regularly off the forehand; the pace of the older American was more substantial. But Stephens defended considerably better than her adversary. The battle for tactical control of the match was absorbing. Williams held at 30 for 4-3 but Stephens answered with a love hold for 4-4.
Williams was extended to deuce in the ninth game but she remained imperturbable, holding on for 5-4. Stephens then faced the burden of serving to stay in the set, handling that assignment with poise. She held at 15 for 5-5. Stephens opened the following game stylishly, lacing a backhand down the line winner off a deep ball. She advanced to 0-30 but Williams secured the next three points. Although Stephens reached deuce, Williams garnered another game point and held on assertively, punching a backhand volley down the line to set up an athletic overhead winner.
Once more, Stephens was serving to stay in the set. She surged to 40-0, lost the next point but held on at 15 for 6-6. The set would be settled fittingly in a tie-break, and that sequence was unpredictable. Venus gained the first mini-break for 2-1, and then served her way to 3-1. But she pressed a bit on the next point, sending a forehand down the line into the net when she had Stephens in an uncomfortable position. Stephens rallied to 3-3, only to drop the next point on an errant backhand crosscourt.
And so Williams was just about right where she wanted to be, serving at 4-3, edging closer to a crucial first set triumph. Stephens made a high return of serve down the middle, and Williams tried to take it early off the forehand. Her approach shot travelled well beyond the baseline and the score was knotted at 4-4. Buoyed by being back on even terms, Stephens sensed her chance. Williams did not do enough with an inside out forehand, and Stephens had a wide open space to direct another two-hander up the line for a winner.
It was 5-4 for Stephens. She got to 6-4, but double faulted for the first time in the match. Williams had a chance to serve her way back to 6-6 and perhaps salvage the set, but she was not up to that task, erring off the forehand as Stephens pinned her behind the baseline. The two women had waged a not unfriendly war from the backcourt for an hour, pushing each other to their limits. But Stephens had rallied tenaciously in the tie-break after twice being down a mini-break, admirably raising her game when it was necessary. She had earned that set with resourcefulness, ingenuity and perseverance despite some nifty attacking from Williams. Stephens had set the stage for a much better performance in the second set by emerging with a hard earned triumph in the first.
Clearly, the 22-year-old American was ready to open up off both wings and play a different, more intimidating and increasingly arresting brand of tennis. She held at 30 for 1-0 in the second set, broke Venus at 15 for 2-0, then held at 15 for 3-0. Williams was unsettled now, but she held on for 1-3. That would be the last game she would get. At 3-1, 30-15, Stephens took a short return from Williams and made a scintillating backhand drop shot winner down the line. Williams thundered a forehand return winner crosscourt to make it 40-30 but Stephens took the next point with well-orchestrated, percentage play. It was 4-1 for the upset maker.
Williams pressed on admirably, reaching 40-30 in the sixth game with a forehand swing volley winner. But Stephens made it back to deuce and then earned a break point with some sparkling stuff. Stephens chased down a lob volley from Williams, retreating rapidly to the baseline to direct a forehand pass crosscourt. Williams responded with a drop volley, but Stephens scampered forward energetically and steered a forehand passing shot winner down the line. At break point for 5-1, Stephens drew Williams forward with a short, low return, and then nailed an inside out forehand passing shot winner. Stephens was unstoppable now. She served out the match at 30 to win 7-6 (5), 6-1, serving an ace down the T at match point.
It was a very good win for Stephens, but what does the loss mean for Williams? The former world No. 1 had a terrific second half of 2014, and commenced 2015 with lofty standards again. That is why she finds herself back at No. 15 in the world now. But her form has deteriorated lately. After opening her 2015 campaign with a 46th career tournament singles triumph in Auckland, New Zealand (where she ousted Caroline Wozniacki in the final), Williams got to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open before losing to Madison Keys in three sets. But lately she has been a lot less impressive. She was beaten in her opening round match on the clay in Madrid by Victoria Azarenka, and fell in the round of 16 at Rome against Simona Halep 6-2, 6-1.
Where does Venus Williams go from here? The next three or four months will be very revealing. She has secured five of her seven majors on the lawns of the All England Club at Wimbledon, and the other two on the fast hard courts in New York at the U.S. Open. That is the time of the year when she should play her most inspired tennis, when she could perhaps turn things around at least to a degree, when she might rediscover some of her old magic and recover a measure of confidence. But the challenge ahead will be awfully difficult, even for a competitor of her stature and durability. Winning another major may be next to impossible for Venus Williams, but the hope here is that she can complete her career with some stirring performances on the stages of Grand Slam events against celebrated rivals. Williams surely has the drive and determination to do just that.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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