NEW YORK—Back then, she wore a white bowling shirt over a gray skirt, and featured beads of red, white and blue in her hair. Tonight, she wore an interpretation—her own, she said—of the storied "little black cocktail dress," with a silvery lace panel in the back and pink-trimmed zipper that resembled a lady-like racing stripe running down the middle of her back.
Back then, she was barely 17 and coltish, arms akimbo, legs flying and beads rattling with every swipe she took. Tonight, at 31, she was rangy and swift and lithe, sinewy and powerful as a leopard, her will and game radiating equal measures of the purpose suggested by her tightly pinned and braided hair and business-like black visor.
One thing, though, was the same back then in 1997 when Venus Williams played her first U.S. Open and tonight, when she embarked on her 14th major in New York. She was unseeded then (and ranked a lowly No. 66), and she's unseeeded—for the first time since '97—now. Judging from the way she played tonight against Russia's Vesna Dolonts, it would be just as dangerous to predict her early demise this year as it was back in '97, when Venus slashed her way to the final before she was stopped by top seed Martina Hingis.
One other critical difference between then and now is that after Williams lost to Magdalena Grzybowska in the first round at Wimbledon in '97, she played San Diego, Los Angeles and Toronto, practicing for the U.S. Open. This year Venus lost in the fourth round of Wimbledon to Tsvetana Pironkova and hasn't swung the stick since. She wiped out her entire summer schedule with one sweep of the eraser because of a viral illness that she declined to identify with any specificity in the press room after her overpowering 6-4, 6-3 win.
All Venus would say is that it was ". . .energy-sucking and I just couldn't play pro tennis. It was disappointing, because I had huge plans for this summer, of course, to improve my ranking. To miss out on all those points was definitely devastating. Just to miss so much time off tour was just disheartening."
For someone who professed to miss playing the game, she sure seemed in a hurry to leave the court tonight. We've come to accept the ability to come in cold and smoke the competition as some sort of genetic inheritance in the Williams family; Venus' sister Serena is already legendary for parachuting in and snatching titles out from under the noses of all those straight-laced, spear carrriers on the WTA. In fact, you have to wonder if it's not to the point where doing all that due diligence at warm-up and routine rankings-boosting events might not actually harm Serena's game or quake-inducing image.
Venus has been less talented at being simultaneously less present and more of a presence. She's played just three tournaments this year (not including this one), which is ridiculous even by a Williams sister's standard. She's ranked No. 36, and hasn't played anyone in the Top 10 in 2011. She said last night that she's so eager to play that if this didn't happen to be the fortnight of the U.S. Open, she'd be off getting a game. . . wherever." At this point, I'd be at a 50,000 dollar Challenger near where I live. I'd be at any tournament that I could play. I just want to play tennis. It doesn't matter what the tournament is, I just want to play. Obviously, the Open is huge, but I just want to play."
Do you get the idea that Venus wants to play?
One of Venus's most glaring shortcomings in recent years has been an inconsistency that suggests that her game has been brought down a notch or two for lack of maintenance. She's been capable of racing through opponents like a silver bullet train, but also prone to run off the rails, spewing errors like smoke from the stack of a steam locomotive. The big questions before tonight's match was whether she would be rusty, stroke-wise (especially on the forehand side, where she's always had both more firepower and less control), or timid due to lack of match play (her record for the year: a 7-3).
Venus caught a break when Dolonts was unable to arrive in New York from Moscow until just hours before the match; she had screwed up a visa application and had to withdraw from New Haven, and when she finally got sorted out her new flight to New York was canceled because of Hurricane Irene. But sometimes, the very hopelessness of a situation inspires a player to swing away and play more freely and effectively than if she had been sitting in a hotel room for three days fingering a rosary and hyperventilating at the very mention of the name, Williams.
Dolonts started well, breaking Venus for 3-2. But Venus broke right back. The games went on serve then until 4-all, the point at which you might have expected Venus to get a little tentative or succumb to jitters owing to a lack of match play—more precisely, a lack of familiarity with the anxiety and tension that influences a match, which can't be duplicated in practice, regardless of the partner or intensity of effort.
Venus had a few tremulous moments, and even delivered a critical double-fault late in the set to fall behind 30-40. But she dispatched the break point with a service winner, followed with an ace, and won the game with another service winner. So much for the jitters. It was a confident statement that may probably rattled Dolonts, who fell behind 15-40 in the next game and was broken at 30 when Venus attacked behind a forehand and smacked away a forehand volley to win the set. It wasn't the first—or last—such demonstration on the night. "Oh, I'm not really a serve and volleyer," she said, correcting the suggestion of a reporter, "But I'm an aggressive player and I do enjoy moving forward. If I can get the opportunity to do so, I do try to."
That Venus was able to play such positive, consistent aggressive tennis throughout an entire match is an excellent omen, because she wasn't sure exactly where desire and reasonable expectations intersected. "I didn't really know what to expect. I was just going to try very hard. I'm not sure I expected to be so sharp. In some ways I expected to be sharper because I know I can play tennis. It's in general. . . just a really high expectation of myself."
How much more can she—or we—expect? Quite a bit in the short term, judging from how crisply and cleanly she played in her first match, unless that dreaded inconsistency comes into play again. And quite a bit in the long term as well. Venus says she and Serena have already discussed their plans for a future in which tennis will continue to loom large:
"Oh, I would be so upset if she (Serena) retired. She could never do that to me. We have to go out together. But we've decided we're not going to lead a traditional career. We haven't to this point, so we won't. So we're going to play past the limit that anyone has ever played, and when our singles game goes, we'll continue to dominate in doubles, hopefully bring home more majors in that. So we've decided to just enjoy tennis. It's such an honor. We'll do it as long as we can. Right now the end is not really in sight."
Actually, if anything is in sight for Venus right now, it's the beginning: "You know, I just need a chance to play. So the season hasn't really even started yet for me. It's been like a blip here and a blip there. Sort of nice to get some momentum for the rest of the year, whatever I have left."
Consider her season started.