World No 79 sends Venus Williams crashing to earth
Five-time Wimbledon winner a pale shadow of her former self as Russian claims big scalp
It was the old Court Two that used to be called the "graveyard of champions", but it was on the new Court Two that Venus Williams's last hopes of adding to her tally of five Wimbledon titles were surely laid to rest here yesterday. The 32-year-old American, who appeared a listless and empty shell of the player she once was, was beaten 6-1, 6-3 by Russia's Elena Vesnina, the world No 79 and the sort of opponent Williams would have eaten for breakfast in her heyday.
This will not be the last the All England Club will see of Williams, who will play in the doubles with her sister Serena and will be back for next month's Olympics, but whether she returns next summer is another matter. The former world No 1 has been struggling with her health ever since she was diagnosed with an incurable auto-immune disease, Sjögren's syndrome, last summer. The sheer fact that she has come back, after six months away from the court, and secured her place in the Olympics is a wonder in itself.
Williams's performance in her post-match press conference had all the fight and spirit that her on-court performance had lacked. "I'm tough, let me tell you, tough as nails," she said, insisting that she had every intention of returning next year.
"I feel like I am a great player. 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, so I'm up for challenges. I have great tennis in me. I just need the opportunity. 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 friggin' tournaments back. That's just not me."
It was at last year's US Open that Williams revealed she had the disease which causes fatigue and swollen joints. She did not play again until March as she experimented with her medication and changed to a vegan diet based largely on raw food. Williams calls herself a "cheagan" because she does sometimes give in to temptation.
Williams returned earlier than she would have in other circumstances because she had to earn enough ranking points to qualify for the Olympics. Her goal was finally achieved at the French Open. "That's all I've fought for this whole year, so I hope that I can play well there," she said.
Asked if she felt she had paid for her efforts in securing selection for the Olympics, Williams said: "I'm really proud of my efforts to get my ranking up for the Olympics. That's one of the toughest things I've ever done in my life. So now I don't really feel that much pressure, to be honest. I want to win, but after going through that, that was hard. I definitely came back early. Do I think I'm paying for it? I can't say that because I don't really know."
The American did not want to talk about her illness – "It is what it is," she said with a shrug – but hers was not the performance of a player who has won five of her seven Grand Slam titles here and had not lost in the first round since her debut as a 17-year-old in 1997.
Williams put only 38 per cent of her first serves in court, opened with two double faults and was soon 5-0 down as the big-hitting Vesnina kept her on the run. Williams rarely got herself in a position to come to the net, where she has been so commanding in the past, and when she did venture forward she did so without her usual authority.
In the second set Williams held on until Vesnina broke in the sixth game. A sympathetic crowd rallied round the former champion – "Come on, Venus, we love you!" one spectator cried out – but Vesnina secured victory after just 75 minutes.
"I've lost before, so I know how to deal with it," Williams said. "There's been a lot of people in this world that fought back from the brink. I don't have time to feel sorry for myself because of everything that's going on. I have to be positive. I love this sport. I feel like I can play well and I'm not going to give up on that.
"I don't have time to be negative. I don't know if you've had any negative experience, but it's not fun. I like to use the same time to be positive because it feels a whole lot better."
Williams said that simply returning to play the game was "definitely a big victory" and added: "A lot of people wouldn't have the opportunity even to 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."
Over on Centre Court, Maria Sharapova, the French Open champion, began her campaign with a convincing 6-2, 6-3 victory over Australia's Anastasia Rodionova. The Russian said that regaining the world No 1 ranking and completing her set of Grand Slam titles would not affect her desire for success.
"I still believe that I can achieve a lot more," Sharapova said. "That's what drives me and gets me up in the morning still. No matter how much success I've had, no matter how many downfalls, I still believe I can be better."
Agnieszka Radwanska, the Polish world No 3, beat Slovakian Magdalena Rybarikova 6-3, 6-3 to earn a second-round meeting with Vesnina. Sam Stosur and Li Na, who both won Grand Slam titles last year but have usually under-performed at Wimbledon, each dropped only four games in beating Carla Suarez Navarro and Ksenia Pervak respectively.
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