By Ossian Shine
PARIS (Reuters) – What Venus Williams would have given for a dash of deja-vu in Paris on Sunday.
The same Grand Slam tournament, the same opening round, the same opponent as last year, but at Roland Garros this year the American slumped out 6-4 7-5 to China’s Wang Qiang.
The loss marked the first time 2002 runner-up Williams has lost her opening match here since 2001, and the only time in her career she has lost consecutive Grand Slam opening round matches.
“There really are no perfect days in tennis, so…” the 37-year-old mused enigmatically. “At this point I have just got to look forward.
“I just want to be my best, that is all… nobody plans on this.”
If Sunday’s result marked a low point for Venus, it represented the best win of Wang’s career, and one for which she was good value.
Her comments post-match attempted to play it down, though, Wang saying only that the win had been “one of” the best of her career.
Wang might have been forgiven for rolling her eyes when the draw was made on Thursday, having been beaten by Williams both here and at Wimbledon in their only previous meetings.
But the 26-year-old set about her task with enthusiasm on a sun-bathed Court Suzanne Lenglen, never allowing her rangy opponent to settle.
Compact and busy, Wang looked to be putting more effort in every ball than Williams with her long fluid shots and languid movement.
And on a hot day which had both players glistening with sweat by the end of the opening game such differences can count double.
So too can free points and short ones, and both Wang and Williams looked to shorten rallies with heavily thumped groundstrokes aimed for the lines.
When faced with a wingspan like that of Williams, margin for error is miniscule, and Wang fired shot after shot onto the lines, killing off Williams’s scooped, looped backhands with dead flat varieties of her own.
There was barely a wisp of wind to offer the overheating players any respite, but Wang, dressed all in black, never took a backward step, sealing the opening in the 10th game after a flurry of points including a drive-volley which left the increasingly frustrated Williams wrong-footed.
The double-fault that Williams hit to lose the first set may have been more indicative of her fortunes, as she struggled to get a good grasp on her game.
Williams has the air of someone who has seen it all, done it all, which, in tennis terms, is pretty much the case.
She eased her way into a 3-0 lead in the second set, but the smoke and mirrors couldn’t mask the holes in her game with Wang taking the ball earlier and striking it with more purpose.
The Chinese was soon level and when Williams double-faulted again — for the fourth time — in the 11th game of the second set, it opened the door for Wang to record a notable win.
She did not need asking twice and sealed it, rather fittingly, when Williams clubbed her 35th unforced error into the net.
Beaming with joy, Wang waved to the crowd and skipped up and down as Williams stalked to the changing rooms.
Next up for Williams is Wimbledon, a tournament she has won five times, but not since 2008. A runners-up finish there last year will give her cause for hope, though.
“I have five weeks, so…” she smiled.
(Reporting by Ossian Shine, editing by Neil Robinson)