When Venus Williams played in her first Grand Slam final, losing to Martina Hingis at the 1997 US Open, Belinda Bencic was just six months old. As the French Open got under way here yesterday the two women faced each other on Court Suzanne Lenglen. Williams, aged 33, won 6-4, 6-1, but the 17-year-old Bencic, junior champion here 12 months ago, showed in the first set in particular why she is regarded as one of the game’s outstanding prospects.
It was a good day for the Williams family, with sister Serena also getting off to a winning start. The 32-year-old world No 1 struck another blow for the older generation, beating Alizé Lim, nine years her junior, 6-2, 6-1.
The fact that Venus is here at all is a tribute to her mental strength and dedication. It is three years since the five-times Wimbledon champion was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, a debilitating auto-immune disease which can cause joint pain, fatigue and digestive problems. Until three months ago she had won only one tournament since the diagnosis, but in claiming the 45th singles title of her career by beating five higher-ranked opponents in a row in Dubai in February she proved her continuing determination.
One of Williams’ main driving forces is the prospect of playing at the next Olympics in Rio. “I can’t wait for the Olympics two years away,” she said. “My goal is to stay healthy enough, and, God willing, stay alive and be at the Olympics.”
The 6ft 1in American has never been at her best on clay – her long legs always seem to want to slide in different directions – and has not been beyond the fourth round here since 2006. Tournament organisers, putting her match on the second show court, clearly sensed the possibility of an upset against the youngest player in the world’s top 100.
Bencic, who is coached by Hingis’s mother, Melanie Molitor, lost to Williams on her debut on the main tour at the end of 2012. The Swiss went on to win the junior titles at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last summer, qualified for her first senior Grand Slam tournament at this year’s Australian Open, where she bridged a gap of 28 years to beat Kimiko Date-Krumm, made her first tour semi-final at Charleston last month, and is now No 81 in the world rankings.
With Hingis watching from the sidelines, Bencic made a promising start. A good athlete with a strong physique, the teenager showed great composure when Williams had two set points at 5-3 and 40-15, combining sensible caution with controlled aggression to win the next four points. In the following game, however, a missed volley and a netted backhand gave Williams the first set. The second set was more one-sided but Bencic’s performance still impressed her opponent. “She has a great attitude and it will take her a long way,” Williams said afterwards.
The American is studying for a business degree at Indiana University East. “I just thought it would help me out in terms of just being more well-rounded with my design businesses,” she said. “I was in school a while, but I had to take some time off because my health went down. I didn’t have the energy to do everything.”
Never one to miss an opportunity to show off something from her EleVen fashion range, Williams wore a white outfit with vivid dashes of colour. The press box consensus was that it looked like either curtain material or something an artist might have worn to protect clothes from splashes of paint.
Over on Court Philippe-Chatrier, sister Serena faced an opponent ranked 137 places beneath her and making her Grand Slam debut, but the world No 1’s nerves were evident, even if she never looked in any real difficulty. It was at this stage against a similarly unlikely opponent, that she suffered one of the most remarkable defeats of her career when she lost in the first round two years ago to Virginie Razzano, then the world No 111.
Following that defeat Williams walked into Patrick Mouratoglou’s Paris academy and asked him to help her. Lim, Williams’ opponent yesterday, also trains there and has become a close friend. Williams attended the draw on Friday but pays so little attention to her future opponents that she did not notice she had been paired with Lim. When she saw her friend later that day it was the 23-year-old Frenchwoman who told her that they had been paired together.
After her victory Serena talked about her pride in her sister. “I expected her to win and to play the best that she can on that day as she doesn’t know sometimes how she feels,” she said. “I’m proud of her, but at the same time, I want her to keep going and do better and do more.”