By Jane Voigt
When temperatures reach 1100 F this week in Melbourne, maybe Venus Williams will be grateful she lost in the first round.
Maybe so will Kimiko Date-Krumm and Roberta Vinci, not to mention the 2006 finalist at The Australian Open, Marcos Baghdatis.
Their exits carried a poignant message. That as good as these tennis icons can be they probably aren’t good enough to keep up with the kids anymore.
Venus Williams stepped on Rod Laver Arena Monday with 13 years of experience at this slam. She has never won. However, she was runner-up in 2003, made the semifinal in 2001 and five quarterfinals in 1998, 1999, 2002, 2008, and 2010. Last week in Auckland, she played brilliantly and lost a tough 3-set final. Today, she started like wildfire against Ekaterina Makarova (No. 22). But she didn’t have enough of the Venus we have come to know and admire to get the job done.
In her press conference she edged around questions about her health and her level of play. Reporters wanted to know if she was ‘closing the gap’ between where she is and what she knows she can do on court. Since she has not played a normal schedule, she seemed argued she could not accurately access the outcome.
“I don’t know,” Venus said. “That’a difficult to say because I do play points really well, and then sometimes I don’t put them together as well. I feel like I have to be patient with myself because I really haven’t had a chance to play that consistently.”
Consistency and confidence, tennis dancing partners of the utmost priority. They are a pair evenly matched. One comes with the other, like inseparable twins.
Venus is 33 and suffers from Sjogren’s Syndrome, which was diagnosed in 2011. It affects her joints, makes her eyes dry, and can make her tired. Yet its onset has no rhyme or rhythm. Regardless of this autoimmune disease, she turned pro in 1994 … 20 years ago. Thus, entropy is a reality for the 7-time Grand Slam champion. When her ground game went shaky today, her serve went off and the chances of her advancing to the second round diminished slowly as a steady Makarova continued to press Venus.
“Venus’s game is based around her huge first serve and attacking tennis,” Joe Nardini Jr., Down The Tee’s contributor this week, said. “When she plays well, she’s great. But when she is not playing well her serve collapses and she loses confidence.”
Venus thought her error count was high today. She hit 50 winners to 56 unforced errors. Granted, if those numbers were flopped her observation would have been more positive. Yet, a power game results in higher counts on both stats. Makarova had 21 winners to 26 unforced errors, almost identical. But her serve percentages — first and second — improved as sets marched on while Venus’s went in the other direction.
“You know, losing any match is never any fun, especially in a major,” Venus began. “So definitely would have wanted a different result.”
Millions of fans would agree with Venus’s sentiment, which is sad. However, she added, “I love Australia. I’d love to come back.”
Whether Kimiko Date-Krumm returns Down Under is a question she will have to answer. At 43 she is the oldest woman in the singles draw by ten years. This is her 13th Australian Open. Her best performance was semifinalist recorded in 1994, 20 years ago. She turned pro in 1989, but took a 12 year break starting in 1996. She’s had two careers, one could argue.
The fact that she remains competitive — her ranking is No. 69 — is awesome. She continues to hit her forehand with a continental grip while the overwhelming majority of opponents hit with a semi-western or western grip in order to spin the heck out of the ball.
Last year at The Australian Open Kimiko made the 3rd round. This year she ran head-on into Qualifier Belinda Bencic of Switzerland. She is 16, is ranked 186, and has yet to turn pro.
All hyperbole is welcome. The two women are 27 years apart in age. Bencic was born in 1998 while Date-Krumm took a swipe at retirement for the first time. And, let’s face it, the age spread is so vast this match could have been billed as a mother/daughter challenge.
Nonetheless, Date-Krumm is a fierce competitor. She strung enough points together to stretch the match to 3 sets, losing 64 46 63. She got in more first serves, but didn’t win the greater number of points off them. Her first serve wasn’t as fast, either, but she surpassed Bencic in net points won and break points won.
“Bencic is an aggressive player,” Nardini said. “She positions herself inside the court. When she hits a shot she knows what will likely come back, meaning she has good court sense.”
This is Bencic’s first Australian Open. She admitted to being a bit nervous today, but didn’t think about the age difference. “I really had trouble to play her because she plays a very different game and very flat ball. I could do nothing with it. But then I managed to go through it.”
During the third set Bencic showed grit, determination and a maturity beyond her years, after losing a crucial break.
“Bencic looked very promising, especially in the third set,” Nardini began. “Date-Krumm broke back and Bencic still served out the match.”
Next up for Bencic is Li Na, another elder stateswoman at 31. She is seeded No. 4. Today, she advanced to the second round despite her age, her power game honed to a tee.
Out with the old and in with the new didn’t hold water across all matches today. Daniela Hantuchova took out 22-year-old Heather Watson of Great Britain. Jie Zheng defeated No. 12 seed Roberta Vinci in straight sets. Both are 30. Observers said Zheng ‘hit Vinci off the court.’ Sara Errani, Vinci’s doubles partner and the No. 7 seed in singles, lost to an aggressive Julia Goerges 63 62. And Petra Kvitova (No. 6), also a power player, has no one to blame but herself in the biggest upset of the day when 20-year-old Luksika Kumkhum of Thailand sent the 2012 semifinalist packing.
Joe Nardini Jr., a rising junior tennis talent, has joined Down The Tee as a guest contributor. He is 15 years old, ranked No. 20 in the Mid-Atlantic for 16 & Unders, and 94 for all freshman in the United States. He loves the game and has been playing tennis since he was 10.