NEW YORK -- Not so very long ago, Venus Williams was a tennis ingenue, the kid with beads in her hair and fire in her serve. Now, as U.S. women's tennis sinks to levels once unimagined, she has become the savior.
It's hard to believe that with her younger sister Serena, the world's top player, missing because of an injury, Venus is the only American among the 32 seeded women in the U.S. Open.
|Venus Williams pumps her fist after defeating Roberta Vinci of Italy to advance at the U.S. Open. (AP)|
On a questionable left knee that had kept her out of competition since a loss in the Wimbledon quarterfinals two months ago, Venus regained her touch and her confidence, defeating Roberta Vinci, 6-4, 6-1, on Arthur Ashe Court.
"I was pretty happy with my game," said Venus, who turned 30 in June. "I hit everything pretty consistently. I had to. She didn't give me a lot of errors."
What Venus gave was a needed jolt to the state of U.S. tennis, which, with Serena still recovering from a foot cut incurred after she won Wimbledon, is in limbo. No one, not even Venus, knew exactly how she would perform after rehabilitating the sprained left kneecap, which kept her out for eight weeks.
"I had a tough summer," Williams said the other day. "I am still training. I am ready for the Open, thank God."
She appeared ready against Vinci, ready to keep the stands full, ready to keep TV viewers watching, ready to keep the tournament in the headlines in a city where the Yankees are rolling and the Jets and Giants are preparing.
Opening Night. Big on Broadway, big at the U.S. Open. "It's a big deal," said Venus. "Usually sold out. Everybody is watching. They're looking for big shots."
And they're looking for personalities, too. Hey, Bode Miller was in the house watching Venus.
"They're looking for big plays. When you get that applause, you know they appreciate it," Venus added.
Venus' play was big enough. It took the third-seeded Williams 1 hour, 14 minutes to get by Vinci, who is ranked 65th and only briefly, with a break in the seventh game of the first set, gave an indication she might make it interesting for Williams and the crowd.
"I definitely missed playing big points and being on court this summer," Williams said of her return. "Not playing any matches wasn't ideal.
"Practice is so much different from a match. I thought I was hitting well, but there are things you only can take out of a match. I handled it well, and I'm looking to build momentum for the next match."
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Venus won the Open in 2000 and 2001 and was a finalist in 2002 when she was beaten by Serena. But her Grand Slam success the last nine years has been on the lawns of Wimbledon, not the hardcourts of Flushing Meadows.
When asked what would make her happy at the end of this Open, Williams answered without hesitation: "Of course, I'd like to be victorious. ... I've won it. I'd like to do it again."
Venus said for only a moment, when she landed hard on the leg in the first set, was there any worry about the knee, which was untaped, a surprise considering the last few years she has had tape on various areas of her legs. It was Vinci who did most of the running, not Williams.
"Maybe in the beginning," was Venus' response when someone wondered if she was conscious of protecting the knee. "But when you get into matches, there's adrenaline. That helps a lot. Being on court wipes a lot of things out of your mind."
Not the intent on winning, however. If, 16 years distant from her pro debut, in a tournament at the building called the Oakland Coliseum, she's lost a step or an inch or two on her racket speed, Venus remains dedicated to her craft.
This was her 200th victory in a Grand Slam tournament. She has seven titles, five at Wimbledon. She knows what to do. She just has to do it.
"The more tournaments I had to pull out of," Venus said of her summer, "the more I was like, 'Wow, what's going on?' The mental game is obviously really important for me, to not give my opponents too many points."
Without Serena, who was Tweeting to TV during the match from, apparently, somewhere out on Long Island, there can be no doubles for Venus. That's disheartening, she said. That's also advantageous because it means less stress on the knee.
The discussion turned to the problems with American tennis -- well, what Venus says the media sees as problems, as if only one seeded American woman and Andy Roddick being the only American male in the top 10 seeds is acceptable.
"I think us American players, we think we do a really good job of holding up the flag," said Williams. "We've been spoiled in American tennis since the very beginning to have so many great champions, such a tradition. There aren't five Americans right now in the top 10, but at least there's one or two."
There's one in the women's draw, Venus Williams. And after a two-month layoff she won her first match. You are allowed to exhale.